8/25: Issues of Control, at NJ Rep

Michael Irvin Pollard is a sidelines coach plotting a return to the game, as Jenny Vallancourt looks on in Gino DiIorio’s drama RELEASE POINT, now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.   (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

“I have a disease…I’m a monster,” states Mike (Michael Irvin Pollard) during a confessional moment in Release Point, the intense little play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

To the veteran baseball coach, it’s all about limits — the petty deceptions and parlor tricks that enhance a pitcher’s effectiveness; the threshold of the human body’s endurance; the insurmountable barriers that keep even the most talented “freak” from throwing a ball any much faster than 100 mph.

The central character of Gino DiIorio ’s one-act drama is himself a man who labors under an imposing set of limits — not least of which is a court-imposed order under which the Third Tier sex offender is expected to stay at least 500 feet away from the neighborhood baseball diamond. It’s this rule that brings the ex-convict and former suburban family man to the wooded hilltop trail of NJ Rep’s shadowbox stage, where he monitors his son Mikey’s home-game exploits through a pair of binoculars. At the same time, it’s that obsessive interest in Mikey’s pitching technique — and the limits of his own will power — that will cause him to plot his way back into a ballgame in which he no longer belongs.

The monster in the woods has a frequent visitor, and it’s his twentysomething daughter Kerry (Jenny Vallancourt) — a talented softball player in her own right, and a budding assistant coach who has cautiously and surreptitiously re-connected with her estranged dad, in hopes of helping her emotionally troubled brother find some success (and solace) in sports.

In the fast-moving staging under the direction of Joel Stone, these multiple meetings between father and daughter play out as vignettes within a late-season playoff chase; a series of exchanges in which the firmly opinionated Mike shares his considerable expertise with the young woman whose own skills have seldom been noticed. DiIorio’s savvy script is heavy on discussions of weight shift, muscle memory, torque and other fundaments of pitching mechanics  — and audience members who don’t happen to be dyed-in-the-pinstripes baseball fanatics could conceivably be as baffled by the mention of Miller Huggins, as Kerry is by her dad’s vintage pop-culture references.

Of course, all that pitching-mound shop talk is merely a starting point for Mike and Kerry to salvage something from the devastated dynamic of their relationship — and where Release Point really makes its pitch are the sequences in which the still-prideful coach opens up about his experiences in prison; his current existence on the threadbare fringe of life’s mainstream, and his ultimate coming to grips with just who and what he is.

A featured player in numerous NJ Rep productions (including DiIorio’s Dead Ringer), Pollard puts his impressive arsenal of pitches to work in this largely unsympathetic, dialogue-heavy role; throwing heat in several of the later speeches, but keeping it over the plate when things threaten to go a little wild. In a long-overdue return to the Long Branch stage, Vallancourt presents an open and engaged character who nonetheless carries her own set of unspoken frustrations and fears — including a heartbreaking late-innings confession that lays open the twisted scar tissue left behind when a loved one has done something truly awful.

There’s a third, brief but not insignificant, role in the play — that of a teenage girl who chases an errant baseball into the monster’s wooded lair — and she’s being portrayed by a rotation of six young Monmouth County actresses that include Gillian Andresen, Felicia Aschettino, Emily Capriotti, Tina Siciliano, Isabel Wallace, and, at the performance reviewed here, Laura Diorio (despite the similar surname, no relation to the playwright).

A modestly scaled but emotionally weighted drama that offers no easy answers — although it does allow a ray of light to pierce the treetops — Release Point continues until September 23 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained by calling (732)229-3166 or taking it here.

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