When a play, movie or afterschool special deals with bullying, it usually approaches the problem with the bully at the story's center. Eventually, the bully learns a valuable lesson about being kinder.
But "Jackie and Me," onstage at Orlando Repertory Theatre, turns that idea on its head. Instead of changing the troublemaker's attitude, the story details how the victim learns to cope with taunting in a positive way. Guiding him is legendary sportsman Jackie Robinson, the black man who broke the color barrier in baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
History and emotion mix with practical tips on turning the other cheek in a satisfyingly entertaining production at the Rep.
It's not a perfect show: Anything dealing with bullying and racism is bound to get a little preachy, and Steven Dietz's script strays into sermonizing a time or two. After a dramatic opening — a nasty baseball game that spawns a free-for-all — there's a sudden lull until Dietz finally gets to the meat of the story: a time-traveling adventure.
Yes, time travel. In the story, based on Dan Gutman's book, young baseball player Joey Stoshack is goaded by an opponent until he starts a brawl, especially angered by digs at his Polish heritage. Thanks to a magic baseball card, he's able to visit 1947, where he meets Robinson.
There, Joey witnesses firsthand the racism of the time while he learns from the baseball great how to handle adverse circumstances with grace. Robinson teaches that it's OK to fight injustice — just not with your fists. Turn the other cheek, and funnel your anger into something productive — like improving your batting — he advises.
The show has its serious scenes; a quiet moment in which Robinson and his young wife steel themselves to face a hostile crowd at a Pittsburgh ballpark is particularly moving. But the story is dotted with lighter exchanges and jokes, too, which director Gary Cadwallader makes the most of.
As Joey, Michael Thibodeau is onstage the entire play — and his energetic spirit keeps things bubbling along. Thibodeau, a newcomer to the Rep, expertly handles Joey's wide-eyed innocence at 1940s life, as well as the modern edge of today's teens.
Adam DelMedico also keeps kids' attention by giving Joey's tormentor, Bobby, a manic meanness, and in another role, scores laughs as a goofily alien-obsessed locker-room attendant.
Clinton C.H. Harris has the requisite gravitas of an icon, but his flashing smile, sharp gestures and occasionally weary eyes make Jackie a real person, not just a figure on a pedestal.
They may be dealing in history, but this clever play's message resonates today.
'Jackie and Me'
• What: An Orlando Repertory Theatre production of a Steven Dietz play. Note that, in historical context, a racial epithet is used in the play. Recommended for upper-elementary students and older.
• Length: 1:50, including intermission
• Where: Orlando Repertory Theatre, 1001 E. Princeton St., Orlando
• When: 2 and 5:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 10
• Tickets: $18; $16 for students, seniors and military; $12 for those 17 and younger
• Call: 407-896-7365
• Online: orlandorep.com