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If you’ve lived in Philadelphia for any amount of time, the first image of The Philly Fan, now running at Hedgerow Theatre, will come as a familiar sight. Walk into a sports bar on any given evening, and you’re likely to find him there. He is glued to the television, decked out in Eagles green and nursing a half-empty bottle, hunched over the bar in a tense sort of prayer. Buy him another drink, and he may have a story or two to tell.
The Philly Fan has a long history of Philly-area productions, but in this updated version, playwright Bruce Graham also stars. The play surveys the past 50 years of sports fandom in the City of Brotherly Love, all from the perspective of one loyal fan. It’s the eve of the 2018 Super Bowl, and as our protagonist steels himself for another defeat, he meets a man from Dallas in town for the weekend. One round of drinks leads to another, and the fan is soon regaling his listener with a lifetime of Philly sports in an absorbing account that captivates through wry comedy and surprising emotional depth.
An uncut Philly gem
None of this would work without Graham, who, in both his performance and the script, unearths a distinctly coarse Philly texture, like an uncut gem. Each recollection is peppered with casual barbs, a gruff poetry, the sort of tossed-off remarks that might have half the room in stitches at any given moment. Yet his conversation is so engrossing not simply because of his distinctly Delconian comic approach but because he locates the story at the heart of every game, more a soldier recalling hard-fought battles than a mere spectator. Graham chisels into the specifics of this one fan and, in doing so, achieves the universal.
Much of this personal touch is gleaned through occasional references to his friends and family, particularly his childhood friend Mook and his wife, Ro. Though they exist only in story, Mook and Ro become a supporting cast of sorts, a chorus attendant to each victory, every defeat. With them, the fan’s introspection takes on new meaning over the course of the play. This is not just the rambling of a sports fanatic but a means to preserve the memory of those he loved.
In this way, the play transforms the realm of sports into a religion, a communal space built around a shared mythology. The stage is arranged as a triptych of locations—the couch, the bar, and the stadium—as dutifully attended as Sunday morning service. Behind the set is a massive screen (projections and sound by Michael Long) showing legendary clips of old events (from Jim Bunning’s perfect game to Nick Foles’s Philly Special), displaying the athletes as 30 feet tall; icons in the church of Philadelphia sports.
The most effective element in casting sports as religion, though, isn’t in anything presented onstage but in the audience. I’ve been to the theater countless times in my life, and never before have I witnessed rows of middle-aged men wearing Eagles jerseys alternately booing and cheering with the main character as if they, too, were the fan in the bar. (It can’t have hurt that the show I attended featured a talkback with Ray Didinger, a Hall of Fame sportswriter and Philly sports mainstay.) When Graham recalls an iconic moment in the pantheon of Philly sports, you can feel it ripple through the crowd, hear the murmurs of recognition, from all who shared in that same sensation of victory or defeat.
Rooting for Philly
Given this, your mileage may vary depending on the degree of your fandom. As compelling as Graham’s episodes are, some are more predictable than others, settling into a familiar pattern of the underdog, the close game, the bated breath, the near win: elements that, no matter how versatile the storyteller, are bound to feel repetitive. The conceit has its limits, of which the play is certainly aware, clocking in as it does at an exceptionally tight 65 minutes.
But even if you’re not the biggest sports fan (and I certainly am not), this is still a worthy play: less about sports, in the end, and more about the city. By the story’s close, you can’t help but root for the Eagles to win. It feels the same, after all, as rooting for all of Philadelphia.
What, When, Where
The Philly Fan. By Bruce Graham, directed by Joe Canuso. $35. Through October 15, 2023, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Media. (610) 565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.
Hedgerow Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Call the box office or email [email protected] with specific seating needs. There will be a relaxed performance of The Philly Fan on Sunday, October 8, at 2pm.
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