By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association
Playwright Anna Ziegler isn’t easy to pin down. Her topics range from a famously debunked transgender study (Boy) to the uncredited scientific contributions of the woman who discovered the double-helix model of DNA (Photograph 51). But at the core of her work is her sharp dialogue that explores the ways in which her various subjects impact the characters embroiled in them. Her play The Last Match, available in a brilliant online production from Writers Theatre until May 30, uses the motif and metaphor of a championship tennis match to explore the intersection of life and obsession.
Tim (Ryan Hallahan) is an old-for-professional-sports athlete, the most famous tennis player in the world looking to capture yet another major title before he gives in to the breakdown of his body and lets himself retire. His opponent in this US Open Final is Sergei (Christopher Sheard), a young and up-and-coming Russian player who sees this match as his opportunity to prove what he is capable of to the world. Both Tim and Sergei are totally driven, as the best athletes need to be. The world they inhabit revolves around international rankings, tournaments, and the adulation of the masses, and both actors give everything they have in physically demanding roles. But these men also live in more personal worlds that exist outside of the game. In The Last Match, as the players focus on trying to achieve victory in the match in progress (we keep track of that progress through a constantly updated scoreboard), multiple flashbacks to their personal lives allow us to delve deeply into who these players truly are.
Tim’s thoughts are all about his wife, Mallory, a former player herself, and their longstanding efforts to start a family. Mallory (a heartbreaking Kayla Carter) loves the game, but at this point in her life she simply wants to have a child. Unfortunately, she keeps miscarrying—once at nearly full-term—and the pain that she holds onto threatens her life with the man she loves, who cannot stop himself from focusing on his career as his body has begun to break down. We watch as Mallory, again and again, greets the happy news of pregnancy only to have her hopes shattered. Her emotions bounce back and forth like the momentum in the match we are witnessing, and Carter delivers a powerful performance that at times rips us to shreds.
She is countered on the Russian side by Heather Chrisler’s Galina, whose personal obsession seems to be entirely tied to Sergei’s becoming the world’s #1 player. Chrisler, who as usual utterly loses herself in the role, plays the ambitious woman as a sort of Svengali for Sergei. Galina isn’t so much in love with her man as she is determined to drive him as far as he can go, and she believes he can go all the way. (Both of the Russians are not really Ziegler’s most nuanced creations; she imbues them with enough stereotypical Russian-ness that, despite the efforts of Chrisler and Sheard, they never quite seem three-dimensional.)
Director Keira Fromm keeps all of this flashback-oriented narrative in focus. The play’s basic structure also echoes the tennis in its back-and-forth shifting from the ongoing match, played in full light on the “court” of the stage, to smaller, more intimate moments shown in the spotlight, and Fromm handles it all brilliantly. She also helps guide her actors to some truly dynamic performances as they grapple with the complexities of Tim’s internal and external struggles, the emotional roller coaster of Mallory’s pregnancies, the battle between determination and recurrent self-doubt in Sergei, and the playful manipulations of Galina.
Ziegler seems to be saying that life is a game in which we can easily become lost if we don’t recognize and value all of what it has to offer. If we remain stuck in the limited space of the court or playing field, we may end up sacrificing the most important thing of all.
Contact Writers Theatre for tickets: $40 each with discounts for multiple viewers.