Chicago Theatre Review
Pine Box Theater shows life is a roller derby with the Jammer
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I found a strange allure to the “sport” of Roller Derby. It combined the campy brawn of “professional” wrestlers, aka the blockers, with the sleek sexy race car drivers, aka the jammers. I always rooted in vain for whichever team was playing the L.A. Thunderbirds who always managed to eke out a last-second victory. As a diehard Cub fan, I was conditioned to root for the underdog and thus equally conditioned to despise the Yankees and the Thunderbirds. One Saturday morning, Dad snorted, “Why do you watch that crap? You know it’s staged.” To which, I could only reply with a dumbfounded Labrador Retriever face. In Pine Box Theater’s production of The Jammer (written by Rolin Jones), I finally found my answer: “Dad, it’s entertaining.”
The 1958 story revolves around Jack Lovington (Josh Odor) who was raised in a Bushwick,Brooklynorphanage run by Father Kosciusko (Bill Bannon). Jack frequently visits his surrogate father in confessional for advice and validation, and there Jack reveals he was discovered at the local roller rink and asked to skate as the jammer for the local roller derby team. His first game as the jammer is a great success. It’s also in confessional where Jack divulges he works two jobs to earn enough money to marry and support his longtime fiancé,Aurora. During his moonlighting job as a taxi driver, he is recruited by Lenny Ringle (Michael Kevin Martin) to tour with theBrooklynteam for $250 per month – an offer too good not to leave behind his beloved Bushwick and Aurora for three months.
On the bus ride to Hartford, we find out the each member of the team is an eccentric in search of an identity most notably, Lindy Batello (Sara Gorsky), the abrasive, foul-mouthed, institutionalized team bruiser brought onboard by Ringle to attract the crowds and the all-important advertising dollar. Lindy is also recruited by Lenny to seduce Jack to lift his spirits after receiving a disheartening letter from his belovedAurora. Unexpectedly, Lindy stops blocking for the evening and falls for Jack and he falls for her.
I found the story weak, especially the confusing culminating scene with Jack and Lindy on a roller coaster, which was at the very essence cliché. I would have preferred Jones stuck to the life is like the roller derby simile. However, the production was not only held together by strong performances by Odor, Bannon and Gorsky, but also by the adeptly-performed roller derby scenes. These were brilliantly choreographed by Matt Hawkins and designed by Jenniffer Thusing and Robert Groth. There are also a couple of memorable scenes. In one, Jack visits the doctor, because Lindy gave him more than love after their night together. The other is the hysterical introduction of Father Domingo who does his best Francis of Assisi impression with the church pigeons.
The Jammer does not invoke a lot of emotion, but it is entertaining especially for fans of the roller derby. The Pine Box Theater Company production is playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport through July 1. Tickets are $28 and can be purchased online at www.pineboxtheater.org or by calling the Athenaeum at 773-935-6875.