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The Cockfighter
by Frank Manley and Vincent Murphy
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
April 10, 2015

Mark Abels, Benjamin Tracy, John Reidy Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Mark Abels, Benjamin Tracy, John Reidy
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

No actual roosters were harmed in the staging of West End Players’ Guild’s latest production, The Cockfighteralthough the bloody “sport” of cockfighting figures prominently.  While the birds themselves are invisible, the emotions on display are real and raw. Although this somewhat awkwardly structured play is decidedly unsentimental, its subject matter is intriguing. Unfortunately, the presentation at WEPG is, despite a mostly strong cast, ultimately unsatisfying and uneven.

The story follows young 12-year old boy (Benjamin Tracey), unnamed but referred to as “Sonny” by his mother (Mandy Berry), who is brought up in the rural South and idolizes his father (Mark Abels), a gruff and stern man who raises fighting roosters for cockfighting. The father, Jake, aims to raise his son to be like himself, despite the objections of his wife, Lily,  who thinks the boy is too young to participate in the rough arena of cockfighting. The boy, however, is eager to learn, having been given a champion bird by his father.  The boy marvels at the bird and, despite his father’s objections, gives it a name, Lion.  According to his dad, the cocks are just wild animals, and naming them or treating them like pets will “soften” them too much. The father’s aim is to shape his son into a hardened professional, like himself. When the big match arrives, the boy’s alcoholic uncle Homer (John Reidy), who is completely ignorant of all things related to the sport, is brought in to help take bets, eventually serving as something of an unlikely role model for the boy in the process. The cockfighting match is played out in great detail, and from there, the dramatic tension of the play builds to what is designed to be a highly confrontational and emotional conclusion.

Some of the key themes explored in this play are coming of age, mother’s influence vs. father’s influence, the importance of role models, and the quest for parental approval. It also deals with issues of what it means to be a man. The story itself is an intriguing, if somewhat harsh one, although this cast only somewhat accomplishes the play’s emotional aim.  There are some strong performances, most notably by Reidy as the unstable but well-meaning Uncle Homer, whose concern for the boy’s well-being seems a lot more genuine than the boy’s own father’s.  Reidy has an excellent moment late in the play in which he recounts his drunken efforts to help his nephew.  Berry is also memorable as the mother, with a sympathetic monologue about her disappointments in raising her son in competition with his father, and her wishes for a new child that’s all her own. Abels is fine, if a little aloof, as the father, and his strongest scenes are with Berry and Reidy. As the boy, however, Tracey gives a good effort and does a fine job throughout the early scenes of the play, although he comes across as older than 12 and he, along with Abels, doesn’t quite carry off the emotional weight needed for the play’s climactic scenes. The very last scene of the play, while clearly written to be powerfully affecting, falls somewhat flat, and the underwhelming effect is not helped by the use of some unconvincing sound effects.  There’s also some awkward pantomiming by all involved with handling the imaginary roosters that makes the cockfighting scenes occasionally difficult to believe.

Technically, the play is simply staged, with a cockfighting pit front and center and the the rest of the play’s action, suggesting the family’s home, occurring behind it on the main stage. The set, designed by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, is simple and effective.  Much of the “set”, however, is imaginary, as the play’s action takes the characters from their home to their pickup truck, to the seedy bar in which the cockfight takes place.

Overall, I would say that this production is an interesting character study, although the dramatic weight isn’t quite carried by the cast. The concept of cockfighting itself is unsavory enough, although it makes an intriguing setting for this potentially challenging drama of family relationships. Still, although WEPG’s production is mostly well-staged, it’s ultimately not as dramatic or powerful as it could be.

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