Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


To this reviewer, there’s no sport as evocative as baseball, extending beyond diamond and scoreboard into a dense, broadly appealing slice of American culture. It’s a sport uniquely synonymous with summer, whose nightly sights and sounds are known by heart, and its languid, measured pace translates better than any other contest to the medium of radio. Yet this only begins to explain why broadcaster Ernie Harwell was beloved as the voice of the Detroit Tigers, welcomed into legions of Michigan homes and cars and backyards for nearly half a century, and why his death from cancer in May 2010 struck fans with enduring sorrow. Now at the City Theatre — mere steps away from the continuing ritual at Comerica Park — journalist, author, and playwright Mitch Albom gives fans and viewers a glimpse into the sincere, modest, irreplaceable Ernie he knew for over 20 years. As directed by Tony Caselli, the world-premiere production of Ernie is as contentedly simple as its title: a portrait of an unfailingly good man, who loved life and baseball, and who will not soon be forgotten.

The play’s framework is found in the bowels of the stadium on September 16, 2009, where the 91-year-old retiree waits through a rain delay to be acknowledged at “Ernie Harwell Night.” Kirk Domer’s behind-the-scenes setting is full of interactive elements that enhance both setting and story, and Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant lighting design balances softness with a dazzling reminder of the game outside. From the outset, Ernie (Will David Young) is affably irritated that anyone would make such a fuss over him, and is just about ready to call it off and drive home when he’s approached by a mysterious Boy (Timothy "TJ" Corbett). There’s something intriguing about the Boy, dressed as he is in anachronistic clothing (fine work throughout by designer Melanie Schuessler) and deliberately evasive when Ernie questions his presence, but the youth’s stated intention is to guide the legend and Hall of Fame honoree through one final broadcast: that of his own life.

Inning by inning, Ernie’s rich and captivating history is a backdrop through which his unshakeable values, stalwart character, and best-known attributes (and catch phrases) are intricately woven. Because baseball was not only Harwell’s vocation, but his passion, the characters’ reveries are well supplemented by video designer Alison Dobbin’s collage of projected photographs and video recordings, as well as by Steve Shannon’s marvelously detailed sound design. Because the play lives in a realm of reflection, not action, what the actors do onstage sometimes takes a back seat to the memories sparked by their words. However, Albom has a PhD in heartstrings, and his blatant adoration for a longtime friend and colleague easily transfers to the viewer. Harwell is accordingly lionized in this telling; even the one single professional mistake he can recall is positively rose-tinted in hindsight.

The show’s wistful charm is well ingrained in the text, but its success here is equally attributable to even-handed direction and heartfelt performances. As the foil of the plot, Corbett has a sprightly, elusive energy as he tenderly interrogates the man of the hour, blending wide-eyed admiration with persistent momentum that keeps the single act rolling forward through the years. Caselli’s direction lends organic movement to a static premise, as the characters connect to each other and their environment in a manner that engages without distracting. Most importantly, this wouldn’t be Ernie without Ernie, and Young delivers handily in a performance rife with grace and humility — to say nothing of the actor’s spectacularly resonant voice, a lovely homage to Harwell’s hallmark. Reluctant to draw attention to himself, the character lights up when confronted with great names and moments in baseball, supplying a point of connection in the same evergreen thrill of fandom that the audience almost certainly shares.

Viewers seeking out that baseball feeling will not be disappointed; Harwell has long been a huge part of being a Tigers fan, and this show understands how to best capitalize on that attachment. With Ernie, Albom convincingly argues that what Harwell deserves is not a drama, but a tribute, and in this polished, reminiscent, and emotional production cemented by an affectionate lead performance, the experience is one of a precious visit with a treasured old friend.


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