I kept seeing things that needed changing." That short line is so casually uttered in the opening moments of Rebecca Gilman's beguiling new comedy-drama The Sweetest Swing in Baseball—which opened last weekend at the Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theatre—that those seven tiny words could easily be missed as the achingly revealing confession they are. From this line, spoken in a glassy monotone by renowned artist Dana Fielding (Liz Jahren, above left, in a rich, detailed performance), feebly explaining why all the paintings in her brand-new gallery show are still wet with fresh paint, the audience is being told two things about Dana: that she is a grade A perfectionist with a strong hard-to-please streak; and that she is dangerously shaken by artistic and emotional self-doubt. From a few added details in the scene—she guzzles one Chardonnay after another, stares blankly into space as acquaintances try to reassure her, and forces a break-up with her increasingly concerned boyfriend—it becomes clear that this is a fragile but brilliant woman who has become profoundly, dangerously unhappy.
After a failed suicide attempt, Dana is committed for observation at a mental hospital. There she strikes up an uneasy friendship with two other patients: the delusional and heavily medicated attempted-murderer Gary (Anthony Abate), incarcerated for plotting to kill a famous newscaster for sending out "evil" messages, and the gay alcoholic Michael (Keith Baker), making another stab at sobriety after the latest in a series of post-rehab relapses. Strangely comforted by the daily structure of hospital life and her regular sessions with Dr. Gilbert (Ann Woodhead, above right), Dana is unsettled to learn her insurance will only cover her hospitalization for 10 days.
Unready to face the real-world demons that drove her to slash her wrists, she decides to fake a more serious diagnosis than mere depression. With the coaching of Gary and Michael, she chooses multiple-personality disorder, and, inspired by a self-help book authored by Darryl Strawberry, she tries to convince the staff that she believes she is the troubled major leaguer. This turns out to be harder than she initially suspects. For one thing, she knows nothing about baseball or Darryl Strawberry, and what she does learn, she doesn't like.
For a play dealing with such serious matters, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball is remarkably funny, with wry and knowing dialogue that reveals truths about the characters as it entertains and darkly delights.
'The Sweetest Swing in Baseball' runs Friday&–Sunday through Sept. 21. Friday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theater, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $15-$20 general. 707.523.4185.
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