Big business, big scandal

Delaware Theatre Company presents Bruce Graham's world premiere 'Sanctions'

3 minute read
Slusar and O'Blenis play university faculty with eyes on the prize. (Photo by Matt Urban at Mobuis New Media.)
Slusar and O'Blenis play university faculty with eyes on the prize. (Photo by Matt Urban at Mobuis New Media.)

Sports — like life — is filled with moral and factual conflicts, and certainty is hard to come by. Playwright Bruce Graham explores this territory in Sanctions, a world premiere opening Delaware Theatre Company’s (DTC) 40th season.

Many theaters might choose a more buoyant offering to kick off an anniversary year. DTC artistic director Bud Martin has instead mounted a taut production about a seductive and treacherous world.

Books v. ball

Sanctions, Graham’s fourth premiere at DTC, explores the lucrative celebrity culture of current-day college athletics. Based on the exposure of an 18-year cover-up at the University of Georgia, it examines the promise of riches tarnished by greed and institutional racism. While he’s in the moral minefield, Graham also turns a piercing look toward the campus sexual-assault crisis.

Dr. Claire Torrance (Catharine K. Slusar), an education professor and author of an inspiring textbook, is armed with spreadsheets and presents an academic paper about the nearly expired period of NCAA sanctions at her sports-mad university. A rabid lifelong fan, Dr. Torrance created and runs an academic tutoring program designed to keep college athletes on the field.

The next scene shows the office/screening room of Ronald Hutchens (Edward O’Blenis), Director of Football Operations, where Hutchens and Torrance (longtime friends and cohorts) view recruitment tapes and recount sports tales. It soon becomes clear that Torrance straddles two worlds — the powerful athletics department and her tenured position in the university’s Department of Education, chaired by Dr. Tonya Mann (Kimberly S. Fairbanks).

Dr. Mann is not a fan of big athletics or its boosters, who sap resources she believes are better used by her own department. She’s disturbed as well by Torrance’s racially tinged witticisms and continual drinking.

Into the academic hotbed comes Abby Barton (Susanne Collins), an eager freshman applying for work in Torrance’s program. But Abby (“the Nancy Drew of tutors”) finds things not at all as she expected.

Fairbanks stands before Moro's helpful news-crawl projections. (Photo by Matt Urban at Mobius New Media.)
Fairbanks stands before Moro's helpful news-crawl projections. (Photo by Matt Urban at Mobius New Media.)

Undoing expectation

Graham’s script often reverses conventions and expectations. This is a play about sports where the protagonist is a woman. And the quartet of actors is equally divided between black and white characters, whose loyalties and positions don’t always fall along expected racial lines.

The onstage company is strong, all four actors deeply invested in Graham’s well-defined roles. Except for sections of direct address that begin and end the play, their immediacy makes watching seem like eavesdropping.

Though each character begins sure of their positions and convictions, in short order they are all swimming in Graham’s tide of moral uncertainty. There are revelatory monologues but Graham engages in little manipulation to achieve his dramatic ends, and these actors bring veracity to each characterization.

After a recent appearance onstage (in DTC’s Heisenberg), Martin returns to the director’s chair to craft a swift-moving and compelling evening. Graham’s overlapping scenes and dialogue chart the play’s moral shifts, and — following the playwright’s forays into ethical fluidity — Martin’s nonstop staging bleeds one situation into another, as actors move around the stage without pause or scene shifts. The play abounds with hard-hitting racial and sexual situations, and no one shies away from exploring their implications.

Designer Dirk Durossette puts the play visually in academia, but his scenic overtones make other subtle statements. The arching wooden walls (certainly at home in the corridors of a university) are redolent of courtroom drama, and his wooden oval allows Joey Moro’s scrolling text projections to evoke both a newsroom and Wall Street.

Thom Weaver’s lighting travels from dim screening room to fluorescent office to klieg-lit stadium, and Lucas Fendlay has captured — among other sounds — a frenzied sports crowd and the insistence of the stadium marching band.

This theatrical courtroom asks the audience to consider if anyone is truly just. Predation, athletic and sexual, is much in the news. While working on the play, Martin researched its surprising scope on campuses everywhere.

The theater scheduled a substantial slate of community panels and talkbacks to address this disturbing situation. But all polemics and scandal aside, Graham and Martin have also created a night of riveting theater.

What, When, Where

Sanctions. By Bruce Graham, Bud Martin directed. Through September 30, 2018, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. (302) 594-1100 or

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