How does one go about faulting the director in a play full of quality acting? Is Leah C. Gardiner heavily complicit in the performances that save The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner from sheer mediocrity? Or did the actors, like the play’s protagonist, rise up against the restrictive desires of their supervisors?
Colin (Sheldon Best) is a restless kid, filled with contempt for the establishment. He’s unsure of what he wants in life, besides something “better,” and his aimless discontent leads him to a juvenile detention center. His only passion is running and his talent for the sport quickly snags the attention of Home Office employee Stevens (Todd Weeks). Stevens wants Colin to run in a race against rich kids from a privileged school and, more importantly, he wants him to win. A series of flashbacks familiarizes us with Colin’s psychic build and provides the framework for a pair of critical decisions: will Colin run the race and, if so, how will he run it?
Mr. Best seems at ease on stage for someone so forcefully charismatic. He immediately hits us with his charm, drawing us in at the very first of his jogging-in-place monologues (a staging choice that leaves front-row audience members with an eye-level view of Best’s bobbing abdomen for much of the play). His early enthusiasm keeps us firmly on his side even when Colin is at the height of teenage petulance, and he captures teenage physicality beautifully, hurling his body into sulkiness and violence with appropriately athletic commitment. Mr. Weeks delivers Stevens’ lines with a melodious, well-meaning condescension that conveys all that Colin hates about the establishment without pushing Stevens into the realm of caricature. And Zainab Jah (as Colin’s mom) makes the thankless task of repetitive domestic disputes engaging. Mr. Best, Mr. Weeks and Ms. Jah are surrounded by a high caliber supporting cast, good enough to overcome even the most distractingly obvious double casting choices (Malik Yoba plays both Colin’s father and Colin’s would-be replacement father).
Unfortunately, all the decisions that do not involve the acting are regrettable. Scene shifts are achieved through projected background images, which would be a harmless trick were it not for the fact that all the images are projected onto prison-style grates, a gesture as subtle as spelling out the play’s themes in neon signage. Attempts at cinematic flashbacks, with actors on the sidelines echoing previous lines, fall completely flat—the play is not intricate enough to warrant consistent contextualizing. Most grimace inducing of all, the racing finale is performed in slow motion, a gimmick that might have improved a farce but only degrades something meant to be serious drama.
The play itself provides a perfectly neutral canvas, mixing bits of enjoyable drama with ham-fisted metaphors and excessive monologues. Whatever the combination of culpability may be for the quality of execution, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner makes for a surprisingly even experience given the imbalanced ingredients. The concept is clunky and the guiding vision is ill conceived, yet the performances make it all seem worthwhile.