Mike Webster’s Story Makes Snappy Good Drama at Pittsburgh Playwrights

The “12:52” brothers: Paul Guggenheimer as Terry Bradshaw and Ernesto Sánchez as Mike Webster.

The “12:52” brothers: Paul Guggenheimer as Terry Bradshaw and Ernesto Sánchez as Mike Webster.

Most reviews of current plays begin by giving credit to the playwright, followed by a brief synopsis of the play’s action. This review will begin by giving high praise to Mark Clayton Southers, Producing, Artistic and Executive Director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Why? Because his current production of 12:52 The Mike Webster Story is a prime example of the mission to which his theater company is committed. The man deserves inordinate credit for (among many things) staging the library of August Wilson’s works (most often at the playwright’s former home,) leading and commanding the development of a new performance space for Pittsburgh in the former Madison School building in the Hill District, and producing new works by earnest playwrights while nurturing exceptional work from local actors and directors. He is a force of nature and one of Pittsburgh’s greatest artistic assets.

The Center Takes Center Stage

Let that be one recommendation sufficient to go see 12:52 The Mike Webster Story. Written by local playwright Dr. Randall Benson and British native Ross Howard, the play follows the demise of four-time Super Bowl Steeler and NFL Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster. Pittsburghers know something about the story from sports news, and many who were not necessarily fans of the Black & Gold phenomenon of the late 70s and 80s know his struggles from the 2015 movie Concussion starring Will Smith, but few know about Webster’s business relationship with a young huckster, Sonny Jani. 

An Indian native who lived in McKees Rocks, Jani sought out Mike Webster—then rumored to be sleeping in train stations or wherever his aimless travels took him—to strike a deal with the pro for his valuable autograph. Together they could make a small fortune selling cards, footballs and jerseys at fan conventions. That was the plan, except that Webster often did not show up at scheduled events, or forgot about them all together. Jani took Webster under his wing, offering him hotel rooms, food, and companionship while the Wisconsin native was estranged from his wife and family. 

Terry Bradshaw, no less sympathetic about Webster’s mysterious behavior, helped as often as his former teammate would allow. Benson and Howard’s sprightly paced play follows Webster’s efforts to combat his own inner demons. And, then, when the medical community begins to suspect that Webster (and other former players) suffer from repeated brain injuries—what would become known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)—Webster and Jani engage a small town lawyer to sue for healthcare not provided by the NFL.

The story few know; Mike Webster (Sánchez) confounds his new business “partner,” Sonny Jani (Arjun Kumar).

The story few know; Mike Webster (Sánchez) confounds his new business “partner,” Sonny Jani (Arjun Kumar).

Who’s Responsible?

Ernesto Mario Sánchez plays the confused, disheartened and angry Webster with a conviction Webster himself may not have realized. Sánchez carries his heavy burden with both strength and calm; he adeptly projects the insecurity of a man lost to his own flaws. As Sonny Jani, Arjun Kumar is instrumental in leading the audience to question whether his character is a shyster or a savior, ultimately fulfilling our expectations with nuances of hope and disappointment. Paul Guggenheimer is man enough to take on the role of Terry Bradshaw, laying out for the audience much of the necessary exposition, yet advancing the brotherly relationship which sustained Webster through many of his darkest days. Kauleen Cloutier gives us sweet insight into the relationship of a woman married to a man whose own shame and disappointments are seemingly irrelevant to their crumbling marriage. Andrew Lasswell plays Steeler PR Director Joe Gordon as well as a doctor whose early diagnosis of Webster the audience is given good reason to trust. 

Pam Webster (Cloutier) knows not what to expect next from her famous husband (Sánchez).

Pam Webster (Kauleen Cloutier) knows not what to expect next from her famous husband (Sánchez).

Bright Lights and Cameos

Director Marcus Muzopappa has cast solid actors to take on the core characters. Yet, there are more to mention. Charles David “Stoney” Richards and Jerry Wienand give dazzling light to the roles of Dan Rooney and lawyer Bob Fitzsimmons, respectively. Richards is quite accomplished in portraying Mr. Rooney’s deliberation of his professional responsibilities, yet showing the man’s personable empathies. Wienand is particularly colorful with his character, rejecting the opportunity to represent Mike Webster, yet ultimately screwing up his courage to take on the Rooneys, as well as the NFL. Due accolades go to Wali Jamal who gives a fine cameo as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist whose post-autopsy on Webster cemented the study of CTE in medical textbooks. Audience members will be surprised and delighted to hear Jamal portray another beloved Pittsburgher, too.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Wali Jamal) shares the results of a recent autopsy.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Wali Jamal) shares the results of a recent autopsy.

Syncopation and Structure

Like many plays based on true events, exposition becomes both a necessary evil and challenging opportunity. Director Muzopappa works some magic in delivering those goods, while also laying down a musical track to lighten the load. One particular scene which addresses Webster’s many cognitive challenges is written in dramatic juxtaposition to his many athletic achievements. Muzopappa lends a nice touch in pacing that syncopation. Credit is likewise due to playwrights Benson and Howard for structuring the events of Webster’s tragic decline with scenes both succinct and unsettling.

Delivering Drama

Let it be known: this is a new play, given life by producer Southers and PPTC, which is to suggest, like a young infant, it may need some time to grow stronger—say, lose some of its baby fat—before it becomes a tight script. Benson and Howard seemingly address every angle of the story they hold dearly, but there may be some roles and scenes that can be eliminated entirely without much loss of impact. This good work is a story about responsibility and, as such, the play takes on too much of its own. It’s a Steelers story, a story about professional ethics, a tale of marital devotion, a mystery of medical discovery, and it’s a parable about brothers joining arms to help another brother. Come to think of it, 12:52 The Mike Webster Story has everything in it that comes to play on a good Sunday in fall. And like any opportunity to see the Steelers play in town, Pittsburgher’s should not miss this one.

Extra Credits

Rounding out the supporting team are Trysta Fields (stage manager). Kim Brown  (costume design), Madeleine Steinbeck (lighting design), Cheryl El-Walker (make-up), and Ben Cain (sound design.)

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company performs in its new space in the Hill District. The former Madison Elementary School at 3401 Milwaukee Street is easy to find and offers plenty of on-street parking. Tickets for 12:52 The Mike Webster Story are available through June 25th.  


Photos: Mark Clayton Southers

C. Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. He has worked in theater management and has also taught theater. His latest book, The Surveyor and the Silversmith, is a history of white settlement, genocide, and land speculation in Western Pennsylvania.

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