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A Review of Ernie, the Play

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On Friday, my wife and I took my mom to see the play, Ernie. Now, before I get down to giving you a review, I would like to point out I am no Mitch Albom fanboy. In fact, I'm not a fan of Albom's at all. When he announced the play at this year's Tiger Fest, I responded by rolling my eyes and asking my wife if she wanted some coffee because I was going to the bathroom. However, when I heard his writing of a play about Ernie Harwell had Harwell's blessing, my resolve softened a little. When I heard Albom describe what he was trying to accomplish - and avoid - in writing the play, I had to give him credit. Not so much that I actually wanted to go see the play, but I told my wife that if Mitch Albom had to write a play about Ernie Harwell, it sounds like he went about it the right way.

After Tiger Fest, though, I didn't give the play much more thought. I just couldn't imagine making a trip to downtown Detroit in the summer and having tickets to something that didn't allow me entrance to Comerica Park. But then, my mom made her subtle suggestions that she wouldn't mind catching the play. How subtle? I think it went, "So, when are we going to see Ernie?" So when her birthday rolled around and she hadn't seen it, my wife and I told her we'd like to take her for her birthday gift.

When we picked her up, her excitement was infectious. I had my skepticism about Albom's part in the project, but what the hell? We were going to see a play that was going to be about Ernie Harwell, and by association, probably baseball. My mom's excitement grew exponentially as we got to the theater, sat in our seats and read through the programs. You see, when the Ernie Harwell story is told, it is always mentioned that even people who are of retirement age literally grew up listening to his soothing southern voice calling Tiger baseball. It's always noted how seemingly every Tiger fan had a personal story about Harwell. Both of those characterizations include my mom. She grew up listening to him. She has her stories about when she met him. She was one of the 11,000 fans who went to see him in state at Comerica Park after he had passed away.

I remember when that happened, when Ernie Harwell died, a lot of people honored him by telling their personal stories that included him. Some who read all these personal accounts complained that too many people were taking a story about Ernie Harwell and making it about themselves. I never really understood this complaint because Ernie Harwell was a storyteller. He made specific and conscious efforts to remove himself from the stories he was telling, so just about everything we thought about him HAD to be on a personal level. Fittingly, the sum total of these personal stories about Harwell make up an important part of Ernie, the play.

The premise of the play is a reluctant Ernie Harwell is preparing to make his farewell speech to Tiger fans at Comerica Park. This is the speech when we knew he had terminal cancer and would not be undergoing treatment to try to defeat it. He's uncomfortable being the focus of so much attention and regrets agreeing to make the appearance. Just as he's about to back out on the whole idea, a child of indeterminate age and origin shows up and starts chatting him up. He claims to be a big fan of Ernie Harwell, but is evasive when asked who he is, how he got to the game, or who he's with. In showing he's a fan, the kid points at the crowd and gives tells some of the personal stories we're all so familiar with. Not surprisingly, our affinity for Harwell becomes an important factor in his deciding to make the speech.

The body of the play is this kid coyly coaxing Ernie's story out of him in nine "innings". The play covers how Ernie Harwell fell in love with the game, how he met his wife, how he got into broadcasting, his role in World War II, his breaking into the big leagues, and the stories we are more familiar with after he came to be in the Tigers' employ. If you've read the accounts of Ernie Harwell that have been available when he retired from broadcasting, when we found out he was dying or after he passed away, the play doesn't cover a whole lot of new ground. But it tells the story in a way that is creative and feels pretty fresh, making generous use of archive photos and old film reels.

With the cast consisting of just Ernie and this kid, it is able to take on a pretty intimate tone. Intimate enough, in fact, that spectators would be forgiven if, in the moment, they forgot that they were not actually watching Ernie himself tell his story. Of course, that intimacy can stir up a lot of emotions. There are quite a few points in the play where you might feel a sting in your nostrils. The surprising thing was for me, these moments weren't so much when Ernie was talking about his pending death. It was more when he was talking about his earliest baseball experiences, his love of Tiger Stadium or the game itself.

The latter comes through when the boy asks Ernie to recite his famous poem about baseball that Harwell read at his Hall of Fame ceremony. The poem, considered by many (and maybe even most) the gold standard of Hall of Fame speeches, takes on a new poignancy when you realize how intertwined Ernie Harwell was with the heroes mentioned within. I expect many skeptical audience members have lost what remained of their defenses against sentimentality by the time he has finished its recitation.

As the play makes very clear, Ernie Harwell lived a remarkable life. This play does a good job of bringing the story of his life to us in a way that feels very natural, despite a somewhat supernatural setting. I suppose the complaint could be made that the kid in the play sometimes teeters on the kind of hammy performance many people feared the play would regress into. However, the character of Ernie flows well and as I told my mom, almost feels like it didn't have to be written at all. I'm sure that was no easy accomplishment for Albom. I know from personal experience it is easy to overwrite when you're personally attached to a story or subject. Knowing that, Mitch Albom should be commended for telling the story of a close friend in an easy tone that was similar to how Ernie Harwell might have called a ball game.

Now, you might ask why I would bother reviewing a play that closed on Sunday. The point of a review, after all, is to prepare its reader for the performance. Well, once the play was finished, we pulled up a table at the Hockeytown Cafe to watch the end of the Tiger game that was going on. As we did so, our waitress told us that she wasn't able to catch it in its first run, but she hoped to catch it when they did it again next year. If you haven't seen the play, I hope our waitress had received good information so you too are able to enjoy it next summer.