Review: “Three Seconds in the Key”

(opened Jan. 13, 2007)

three [1/2] stars Slam dunk

You don’t automatically assume a play about Hodgkin’s disease and basketball will be a spiritual experience.

But Deb Margolin’s Three Seconds in the Key, which opened Saturday at the SF Playhouse, is as spiritual as it is strange.

Now, if you’re sports ignorant, like I am, you need to know that the “key” of the title refers to the game of basketball, and the key is the area underneath the basket — the free-throw circle and the free-throw lane — in which offensive players risk a foul if they remain there for more than three seconds.
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In Margolin’s one-act play, the key is a dangerous place, a place of illness and deep soul searching. A mother, played by the phenomenal Amy Resnick, one of the Bay Area’s best actors, is dealing with Hodgkin’s, a form of cancer that attacks lymphatic tissue and, among other things, compromises the immune system.

Apparently this woman (who remains nameless) has a husband and a daughter, but we never meet them. For the purposes of the play, we’re more concerned with her 8-year-old son (a terrific Gideon Lazarus), a fanatical follower of the New York Knicks who tries to use his enthusiasm to buoy his weary mother.

Margolin based the play on her own life, and at Saturday’s opening, she was in the audience with her now teenage son, Bennett.

The mother-son connection in the play is a strong one, with a powerful bond through basketball. But don’t think that this is some made-for-TV, disease-of-the-week kind of tale.

First, Margolin’s use of language is incredible — even staggering at times. She’s poetic and funny, obtuse and specific all at the same time. Rather than take us into the messy particulars of her illness, she guides us into the bizarre, stream-of-consciousness zone where illness blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.

Director Leigh Fondakowski (last seen helming The People’s Temple at Berkeley Repertory Theatre) makes the most of the small SF Playhouse stage to bring the mother’s surreal cerebral fantasia to stirring life.
One half of set designer Bill English’s stage is a suburban home — a boy’s bunk beds and a mom’s nest-like couch — the other half is a basketball court.

The play begins with a freewheeling, hilarious monologue by Resnick that turns into a duet with Lazarus. Then the play literally explodes with the entrance of the basketball team _ or at least five of its members: Paul Oakley Stovall, Skyler Cooper, D. Anthony Harper, Casey Jackson and Chris Walsh.

The players shoot hoops and star in various TV commercials, including one for a power drink that Photobucket - Video and Image Hostingbecomes the sick mom’s mantra: “I refuse. I refuse to lose. I refuse to fail. I refuse to die. I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to be taken.”

We shift from the suburban home to the Knicks’ locker room, where the players hold a prayer meeting and read from the Psalms.

In the mother’s subconscious, her cancer support group blends into the players’ prayer meeting, and one of the players, the star (Stovall), takes a special interest in the woman he refers to as “Mother.”

“I am more than a mother,” she tells him. “No you ain’t,” he responds.

He becomes sort of a spirit guide, antagonizing and supporting her as she fights for enough energy to be a mom, be a functioning, thinking human and beat her illness.

At an hour and 40 minutes, Three Seconds is a little long, but that length is only noticeable when Margolin starts losing the shape of the play entirely. We happily glide through the amorphous world of the sick woman’s psyche until we begin losing touch with reality altogether.

The play comes back together but never devolves into schmaltz, which would be easy to do given the subject matter. But the aggressive sports aspect of the play — beautifully realized by the players and choreographer Krista DeNio — lends it a welcome edge.

Three Seconds in the Key puts us in the mind of illness, where fighting and winning are more than a game and spiritual connection is more than empty words or a plea bargain with God.

“How do you take a shot when you’re so worried about where you stand,” the mother asks the ball player about the three-second rule. “Three seconds is a long time, Mother,” he answers.

In the end, life, according to Margolin, is “three seconds with the ball and forever and a day without it.”

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