“The Great Leap” is a giant win for the Asolo Repertory Theatre. The more than two-year hiatus has done nothing to dampen the spirits of the cast and crew of Lauren Yee’s tremendous play. The incredible energy from the cast and the compelling script made this the best staged play I have seen in at least five years. Glenn Obrero is on fire as Manford – all 5’ 7” of him pulsates on stage brimming with an unmitigated desire to share his boy wonder basket balling with the world. Manford is a basketball prodigy in a very small package, and he quickly manages to win over the irascible coach, Saul played by Gregg Weiner. The two form an unlikely bond over a shared love of the game, and Saul, in particular, grows to respect Manford’s brash confidence and his ability to rally the team around him through sheer force of his personality.
The first act is dominated by a riveting, rapid fire, and very salty dialogue between Saul and Wen Chang played by Greg Watanabe. Wen begins as Saul’s emissary and translator and soon becomes his mentee. In a hilarious riff, Saul and Wen do a fabulous buddy routine as Wen tries desperately to translate Saul’s increasingly explicit trash talk, which he says is crucial to dominance on the basketball court. Saul teaches Wen how to coach basketball, and Wen ultimately becomes a talented coach in his own right.
Wen, stunningly portrayed by Watanabe, is the heart and soul of the show who hides a simmering spirit beneath his subdued demeanor. After years of toiling in a Communist regime, Wen becomes transformed by his brief relationship with Saul who teaches him his uniquely American approach to basketball. Everything in the play builds to the inevitable conflict between the clashing cultures’ respective approaches to the game. American exceptionalism, which makes players and coaches into media stars, is contrasted with the Chinese who emphasize teamwork, fitting in, and the underlying danger of making a spectacle of one’s self.
Ironically, Saul’s approach to the game and to life helps Wen develop a desire to take some calculated risks leading to both some measure of joy with an intriguing basketball loving classmate and ultimately to his downfall in the Communist regime.
Joining the three men from wildly different backgrounds is Helen Joo Lee as Manford’s spunky cousin Connie who helps ground Manford and keeps Saul in check. All four members of the cast are uniformly outstanding. Wantanabe’s quiet grace as a lonely political operative beaten down by an oppressive government is the perhaps most moving performance that I have seen on the Asolo stage.
When the play opened, we could not have imagined we would soon be witness to brave and unwavering Ukrainians standing up to government oppression and choosing the lonely path. In basketball as in life, a great team can help lead you to victory but at some point, a player must stand alone and take his shot. We are watching in shock and in awe of the bravery of individuals standing up in the name of freedom. “The Great Leap” has resonance far beyond the two hours of the show and has much to say about the power of the human spirit. Don’t miss it!