House of Pain

Growing up, former Oiler Bo Eason never looked much like a football player. Short, scrawny, kind of soft and tender around the eyes, the kid from a working-class family had to beg every peewee coach he had to let him play. It's nothing short of amazing that Eason actually beat the odds of his own biology to become the 26th player selected in the second round of the 1984 NFL draft. Sounds like an inspirational story if ever there was one. But Eason's moving Runt of the Litter, about his rise to football fame, is anything but inspirational. Over the course of this angry one-man show that he both wrote and stars in, the football player-turned-actor explores the darker side of America's Sunday-afternoon ritual.

Directed by Larry Moss and played out on Kirk Markley's stark, gray locker-room set at Stages, the story is filled with fascinating insider info, childlike exuberance, grown-up heartbreak and deeply disturbing revelations about the interior life of a football star.

Jack Henry, who functions as Eason's alter ego, runs onto the stage ready for the game of a lifetime, his first Super Bowl; it's the sort of moment that calls for a long look back. He begins, appropriately enough, with Little League. It's here, holding the bat at age nine, that he first feels the power of sports. His father, who's never home during the day, shows up for the game to cheer him on. Henry learns early that the best way to earn love is on the field.

This story might be mawkish, but Eason elevates it out of banal sports lore with his extraordinary attention to detail. Jack remembers how good he felt when his father, his greasy working-class fingernails laced through the chain-link fence behind home plate, yells to his son at that Little League game, "You're the best, goddammit." It is this precision of memory that lifts Eason's football story into the realm of literature, one that's both revelatory in a deeply personal way and archetypically American.

Because Jack's dad pays attention when he plays football, the boy turns himself into a gridiron player. But what starts as the story of a self-made man ultimately reveals the sometimes dangerous underpinnings of such mythmaking. Jack makes himself get up at five a.m. to exercise. He catches 1,000 balls a day, which means he has to find someone to throw him 1,000 balls a day. His brother, the more athletically gifted of the two, agrees to help. And together, they transform themselves into football players.

But Jack is not physically suited to the rough game. At 15, he stands just five feet, five inches and weighs 127 pounds. When he's injured, the surgeon his father hires must be convinced to operate on the teenager, whom the doctor obviously thinks is never going to play pro football. Dad prevails, however, and that injury becomes the first in a long line of troubles that eventually turn his knees into knobs of pins and wires and stitches and steroids.

What Jack lacks in size, he makes up for with determination and brute force. "Have you ever been hit with a speeding arrow?" he asks. He plays safety, the last line of defense. Football, says Jack, is "a permission slip to indulge in your darkest fantasy." On the field he hits people so hard he can "smell smoke." About the uniform, he says, "When I put [it] on, I am never more alive and never more dead." All this gets right into the blood and guts of what it takes to play professional football, and it's especially disturbing given our latest and more violent take on the game, the XFL.

Jack always comes back to the question of self-image and family and the ways in which sports have contributed to an American male identity that's determined, violent and driven. No matter that such drive often leads to destruction.

Eason's performance style lends itself well to this material as he practically stalks the stage with a sort of fierceness that sometimes feels over the top. But he's also able to capture the whimsy and innocence of the child who only wants to please his father; the adolescent who wants to have sex; and the pro football player who still scans the stands for his father's face. The result is a riveting production that penetrates deep into the myths of the American male and steals the heart as no bloodthirsty safety ever could.