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THEATER REVIEW The Great Leap
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-09-18

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Playwright: Lauren Yee

At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; Steppenwolf.org; $20-$89. Runs through: Oct. 20

The year 1989, Chinese popular uprising, Tiananmen Square, the iconic Tank Man...

The real Tank Man was the son of high-ranking Chinese officials, and began an Army career as an interrogator before his break with the Party, which compromised his parents' careers. Escaping to America through a Christian organization ( although he wasn't Christian ), he met a man who became his life partner. They lived in the rural Midwest until one of them died early this year. I knew them as a couple and still know the surviving partner.

As improbable as this sounds—I've no independent proof of its truthfulness—it's far more probable than Lauren Yee's brilliant Tank Man creation myth; an elaborate fairytale featuring a 5'5", 18-year-old Chinese American basketball star, Mao's Cultural Revolution, a second-rank basketball coach, international politics, the birth of institutional b-ball in China and a 1-in-1.3 billion Chinese coincidence. Set in 1971 and ( mostly ) 1989, and switching between San Francisco and Beijing, The Great Leap also substantially concerns personal identity and choices we make to protect ourselves under political and emotional pressures.

That's a complicated web to spin in two hours, and Yee, as ever, combines punchy, witty dialogue with strongly-drawn characters and a highly theatrical presentation, given an ever so physical staging by Jesca Prudencio on Justin Humphres' 1/2 size basketball court setting, with audience on two sides just like in the school gym. If the play is less raucously funny than some of Yee's other work—and she uses comedy most effectively—it's due to the complex threads of the story and the serious issues at heart. At first, it focuses on the uncouth, foul-mouthed and often thoughtless coach ( Keith Kupferer ) and the fearless, driven and often thoughtless boy wonder ( Glenn Obrero ). In Act II, however, the self-contained, seemingly cold Beijing basketball coach ( James Seol ) becomes the crucial character.

The cast—completed by Deanne Myers as the boy's cousin— is splendid, but Obrero is an utterly dazzling ball of fire in a reputation-making role as prodigy Manford Lum. Agile, lithe and rarely still for a second, his face a mask of emotions, his award-worthy performance drives the entire show. Kupferer, one of our finest veteran actors, has gruff charm to spare as always but knows when to reveal the more sensitive underside of his character. Seol is their emotional match, which he must be in a far less showy role. Myers is strong in the play's least developed role as Lum's friend and support system.

There's no Steppenwolf Ensemble member among the cast or production team of The Great Leap, but it's Kupferer's fifth Steppenwolf show so it's time to bring him in—and Chicagoan Obrero should be on everyone's list.


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