With fine script and cast, a gripping 'In the Grasp'

July 23, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Patricia H. Lin has one of the best qualifications for a playwright -- she's an excellent storyteller. When you watch her latest play, "In the Grasp" -- produced by Harbour Theatre as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival -- you not only care about the characters, you constantly find yourself wondering what's going to happen next.

Lin's flair for storytelling and characterizations was also evident in "The Faith Keepers," her entry in last year's festival. But the tension is higher and the issues broader in this new play, which is being performed by a mostly fine cast under the direction of Sharon Rosen.

Like "The Faith Keepers," "In the Grasp" has an Asian character at its center, in this case an exchange student named Shirley from Taiwan, who is paying for some of her university expenses by tutoring one of the school's star athletes, a football player named Tim.

Both Shirley and Tim, who is black, are members of minorities, and they're also both on scholarship. Clara Chua-Sierra and Tony Yarbrough deliver impressively naturalistic, empathetic performances in these roles; the bond between their characters is almost palpable. For them, college means more than education or sports; it's a chance for a better way of life.

However, that chance is jeopardized when the football team's other star player, Roger Stears, takes a liking to Shirley. A male chauvinist who thinks all women are named "Babe" or "Sugar," Roger has never been attracted to anyone who'd rather study than be with him, and one night when Shirley rebuffs him in the library, he tries to sexually molest her.

From this pivotal point, "In the Grasp" is reminiscent of David Mamet's latest play, "Oleanna," which also deals with sexual harassment in a university setting. But in Lin's play the assault is too overt for the play to hinge on differences in interpretation, as Mamet's does.

Instead, Lin focuses on the hypocrisy and self-interest that surface as various factions take sides in what quickly escalates into a universitywide scandal.

As played by Bill Garvin, the football coach initially seems like a kindly father figure. But his motivation to help Roger stems not from concern for the young man, but from a desire to save his job, which depends on producing a winning team.

Meanwhile, a female sports reporter for the university paper -- Gina Whalen in the production's only forced portrayal -- promises Shirley that she can help her win back her self-respect, but all this reporter really cares about is getting a juicy story.

Roger's motivation, of course, is simple: He wants to clear his name before he loses all hope of an NFL career. Pete Taylor is credible in this stereotyped role, but more importantly, he

convinces us that his character finally learns something.

For that matter, almost everyone learns and grows in this play, which is one of its most notable qualities. The playwright relies a little too much on the telephone as a prop -- a second-act phone conversation in which Shirley wounds Tim's conscience would be far more effective in person. And, the preponderance of short, choppy scenes seems better suited to the screen than the stage.

But overall, "In the Grasp" is compelling. The title, which is clearly meant to be a double-entendre, refers to a football rule intended to protect the quarterback when he's being tackled. The strength of Lin's play, however, is that no one on stage comes away unscathed -- and the audience is moved as well.

"In the Grasp"

Where: Harbour Theatre, Catonsville Career Center, 106 Bloomsbury Ave., Catonsville

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Aug. 1; through Aug. 7

Tickets: $8

Call: (410) 325-6744

... ***

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