8/13: Playing Catch and ‘Release’ at NJ Rep

Michael Irvin Pollard is an ex-baseball coach whose past has overtaken him on the basepaths — and Jenny Vallancourt is the daughter who make a pitch to understand him — in RELEASE POINT, the world premiere play going up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

Ah, the healing powers of baseball — and the power of a crackerjack story to transcend the speedball/ moneyball realities of the millennial Game when we’re looking for that high.  The ability to bring together an estranged father and daughter on the playing surface of family dynamics, here in the late-summer season when the shadows grow foot-long and the increasingly convoluted pennant race heats up.

Of course, this being edgy-as-all-getout New Jersey Repertory Company — and this being a new work by playwright and professor Gino DiIorioRelease Point enters into its world premiere engagement this week from an off-speed, unpredictable place that’s likely to have more to do with the baser aspects of human nature than anything resembling The Natural.

In the script under the direction of Joel Stone, a young woman (Jenny Vallancourt) ventures to a hill overlooking a suburban baseball field, in an attempt to salvage something from a severely damaged relationship with her father. The dad (Michael Irvin Pollard) is a former pitching coach who spends his days observing the kids from afar because, well, he’s done something terrible — and he’s forbidden to get any closer to the game.

Pollard, who starred in the 2009 premiere run of DiIorio’s bizarre Western gothic horror Dead Ringer — and whose transition from broad comedy to dramatic versatility has made him one of the most valuable players on the NJ Rep roster — is joined here by Vallancourt, herself a young veteran of past productions like the musical Bookends and the scary-amazing domestic drama October 1962.

There’s a third role in the script — that of a little kid named Kayla, and here on the cusp of a new school year she’s being played platoon-style by a bullpen of six young actresses that include Isabel Wallace (a hit in the role of Time in Two River Theater’s Melissa Arctic) and next-generation talent Laura DiIorio.

UpperWETside spoke to the playwright about baseball, theater, and more baseball as part of a twi-night interview doubleheader. More with Joltin’ Gino DiIorio after this stretch…

Six Kid Rotation: Platooning in the role of Kayla — and appearing alongside Michael Irvin Pollard during the NJ Rep engagement of RELEASE POINT — are (clockwise from top left) Isabel Wallace of Little Silver, Emily Capriotti of Howell, Felicia Aschettino of West Long Branch, Tina Siciliano of Lincroft, Gillian Andresen of Oceanport, and Laura Diorio of Middletown.  (photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

upperWETside: We understand that this play involves a father and daughter using the Healing Power of Baseball to come to some reconciliation. Now, I’ve seen the other plays you’ve done at New Jersey Rep (Winterizing the Summer House, Apostasy, Dead Ringer) and I’m wagering that we’re venturing into edgier territory than the high fructose corn syrup you find in something like FIELD OF DREAMS…

GINO DiIORIO: It’s one of those plays where if I told you the whole story of how this play came about, it’d keep people away. I got the idea when I asked about an old college friend from 20 years ago, and I found out that he’d been convicted of being a pedophile.

I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that this guy I knew was now doing time…I wondered how he’d come to grips with what life would be like when he got out; how someone could ever have a relationship with their family again when they’ve done a terrible thing.

So the dad in this play has a similar thing in his past, which is why he’s no longer coaching the kids’ baseball team.

The play takes place on a hill outside of a baseball field, where a daughter seeks out her father, who’s been going up there to watch the kids play ball. He’s been in prison for ten years, and he can’t be within 500 feet of the playing field. Of course, he’s measuring it from home plate!

So the daughter, who’s really a star at softball — she throws underhanded of course, so he doesn’t take her seriously as a pitcher — is out there just trying to figure things out; to see if there’s any sort of relationship that can be salvaged there. And they use baseball to find some common ground.

Whenever I’ve tried to use baseball as common ground, the conversation usually devolves into a donnybrook over some pathetic bit of theory or minutiae. It sounds like the dad is an old-school type who won’t even accept his daughter’s ballplaying skills and knowledge.

He’s old school; he preaches pitching downhill, to a landing point…like a lot of guys who coach kids, he’s very much against the curve ball. Fastball, change up…the rest of the stuff can come later.

Well, having been in lockup for ten years, he managed to miss the whole modern obsession with pitch counts. We’re veering a little far afield from talking about the play here, but while we’re on the topic I’m interested in your take on the whole strict pitch-count thing.

There are managers and pitching coaches out there who will almost never let anyone pitch a complete game anymore…they’ll yank a guy off the mound even when things are going swimmingly, and then you watch the whole dynamic of the game shift from that point on.

Then there are guys…I’m thinking of when I was watching Yankees vs. Tigers the other night; Justin Verlander was just kicking Yankee ass, 14 strikeouts, allowing two unearned runs…he’s out there throwing over 130 pitches, and in the eighth inning he’s still being clocked at a hundred miles an hour. 

It’s more about pitching motion…a lot of kids in high school have a wide variety of pitches, but pitching a baseball is just such an unnatural, complicated process in the first place that everyone obsesses over every little thing when it comes to someone’s arm. Some guys are really only good for 100 pitches, and some guys seem to have a rubber arm — it used to be you’d see someone like Juan Marichal throw 200-plus pitches in a game.

Well, we’re gonna need to pick up the conversation later, but getting back to RELEASE POINT, this was one of several plays that you workshopped as readings there at NJ Rep…

It went from readings to a full production…it was done as a reading just last spring at New Jersey Rep; it was done at HotCity Theatre in St. Louis, and as a reading at Berkshire Playwrights Lab.

I’ve had a few readings done there in Long Branch, in addition to the handful of plays that have gone on to full productions there. I appreciate the audiences they get for those readings, too…they don’t hold your hand; they tell you up front what they like and don’t like.

I feel really blessed to know Gabe and SuzAnne; it’s a great home for original plays, and it’s really only one of two theaters in the entire country that does what they do.

They are also just about the only people who would put forth a summer entertainment about a pedophile! And you know from experience that you can present an honest piece of work to them, on a squeamish sort of topic, and have them trust your instincts.

I felt that I had to write this piece; to humanize the monster…to a writer, it’s part of the job. I’ve always been one to talk to the weirdo!

Release Point presents matinee and evening previews on August 17 and 18; opens August 18 at 8pm, presents a matinee performance on August 19, then continues until September 23 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here.