Review: 'X's and O's' offers a thought-provoking examination of our football conundrum

Recently, I took my girlfriend to her first NFL game, between the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. She went to the bathroom and missed a big interception by Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb but, she later told me, the loud cheers coming from all the stalls told her everything she needed to know.

If that doesn't fully demonstrate America's obsession with football, I don't know what does. But you don't even have to be inside the stadium to see it—with games almost every day of the week and Purple Friday informing citywide office outfit choices in the fall, the game is thoroughly imprinted on our culture.

"X's and O's," the new documentary play at Center Stage, aims to examine our national love affair with the game—more pointedly, the conundrum of loving football while knowing so much about the damage done to those who play it. Using mostly anonymous interviews with former players, family members, doctors, and fans, "X's and O's" pulls together a kinetic, compelling appraisal of the game, showing its power to both uplift and destroy.

Walking that line is important. The play aims to ask questions, to get viewers to think harder about the ethical quandry of football in 2015, not jam an easy answer down their throats. Because there is no easy answer to the multi-billion-dollar NFL.

The play opens on a round stage with the full six-person ensemble cast cheering in slow motion as a play looks like it's going to hit big for their team, collapses, and then miraculously works out. The set has the scaffolding, bright lights, and brusk modern architecture of an ESPN studio.

From there, director Tony Taccone speeds up the action, quickly shifting from scene to scene at a brisk pace, guiding the viewer along without ever losing them or their interest. At points, the audience is a fly on the wall, listening to fans at a sports bar debating concussions between sips of beer and shouts at the television. But for the most part, we are hearing interview answers or testimonials, like in a documentary film.

Former players (played by Bill Geisslinger, Anthony Holiday, and actual former 49ers star Dwight Hicks, juggling seven roles between them) share stories from their glory years and about how they got into playing the sport. All three actors convincingly convey the wistful nostalgia of these gridiron vets, while also expressing their characters' conflicted feelings about their lives in football.

In one particular scene, one of Hicks' chracters talks about getting his bell rung in the sort of matter-of-fact, lightly humorous way that can only come from someone who's dealt with it on a regular basis. His account of being loopy in the middle of Soldier Field even drew a few laughs from the crowd.

But this is quickly counterbalanced with a physician (Marilee Talkington) explaining how sub-concussive injuries develop. She uses actual NFL footage to show the types of collisions where this occurs—one particularly bad hit elicited groans from the audience.

The pendulum continues to swing back and forth like this throughout "X's and O's," sometimes in the course of a scene. All six cast members will come out as a chorus to offer a history of pro football, and they'll go from an interesting factoid, like Teddy Roosevelt calling prominent college coaches to change the rules and save the game, to something damning, like the NCAA knowing the severity of concussions as early as the 1930s.

In another scene starring Hicks, a former pro grapples with what football has given him: being the first in his family to go to college but also having to retire at age 30 due to injuries.

"How do you go from Superman to man again?" he asks. "And with this head stuff, how do you go from Superman to man to nobody?"

Though "X's and O's" is only 80 minutes (without intermission), it manages to widen its scope to youth football, the NFL's labor practices, and race (touching on the long history of segregation in the Washington Redskins, but also having one player suggest outright that the reason fans don't care about concussions is the league is mostly black). And it does this seamlessly.

By now you're probably wondering where the positives are. While the multiple instances of NFL alums regaling in their on-field achievements and toughness certainly count, the most heartening moments come from everyday people. There's the mom who watches her sons play pee-wee football "with St. Joseph in one hand and a rosary in the other" (Jenny Mercein, who co-wrote the play with KJ Sanchez) but enjoys getting them outdoors and having them learn discipline from their coach, and the Midwestern New York Giants fan (Talkington) whose ailing sister found comfort in becoming a Green Bay Packers fan before she died.

The most poignant comes in the form of a soliloquy from a Baltimore Ravens fan (Eddie Ray Jackson), which comes naturally, even though it was just written for this run at Center Stage. In it, he talks about the city's long, troubled history of segregation, and its inferiority complex when compared to other Eastern Seaboard cities, and how all that faded away after each of the Ravens' two Super Bowl victories.

"It was a big 'screw you' to the rest of the country," he recalled.

Then he shifts to the uprising—offering an aside that it shouldn't be called the riots because "one CVS caught on fire, replayed over and over again [on TV]." He talks about the way high school coaches can shape kids, and how they came out after the night of rioting, as community leaders, to rebuild and work with young people.

None of what's revealed in "X's and O's" is new, even to casual or non-football fans. But that's not really its purpose. The docu-drama is a well-acted, tightly constructed, thought-provoking package that offers a captivating summation of football and our modern-day soul-searching related to the sport. It doesn't offer any hints at where the game should go or tell you whether or not to watch the NFL, but it makes a convincing case that all of these things are worthy of careful consideration.

"X's and O's" is at Center Stage through Dec. 20.

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