“Who loves the battle?” “Carlin loves the battle.” This rallying cry is repeated throughout Our Very Own Carlin McCullough, a play written by Amanda Peet currently in its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. Carlin, ten years old when the story begins, is a tennis prodigy, and she is everything to both her single mother and her passionate coach—but investing all that you have in a tenuous dream that could slip away with one wrong move is a dangerous game.
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, we first meet Carlin (played by two actresses, Abigail Dylan Harrison from ages 10 to 12 and Caroline Heffernan at age 17) at the very beginning of her tennis success. Her coach, Jay (Joe Tippett), a former accomplished player himself whose career took a disappointing turn once he turned pro, discovered her as she practiced on a public court one day. In the beginning, Carlin’s mother, Cyn (Mamie Gummer) needs some convincing—she hardly knows the first thing about the game of tennis herself, and is a bit surprised when Jay insists Carlin has a unique talent. Cyn has been a single mom for her daughter’s entire life—she jokingly refers to Carlin’s father as “the sperm donor”—and she is not in a financial position to commit even harder to an expensive, elite sport, but Jay proposes an arrangement where she pays him what she can, when she can, because he believes so deeply in Carlin’s potential.
Carlin racks up more and more wins, and soon Cyn is using all of her paid time off from work to travel to matches. While on the road, Cyn, Jay, and Carlin always share a single hotel room, which draws out the complexities in Jay’s relationships with both mother and daughter. Cyn, who describes herself as perpetually single but in a committed relationship with alcohol, clearly has a bit of a crush that may or may not be reciprocated, but, of course, Carlin comes first, so things never quite pass the point of harmless flirtation. While Jay seems to love Carlin like a daughter, Carlin idolizes him in a way that blurs the line between father figure and the type of schoolgirl crush many young girls develop on men of authority. It is easy to see the potential inappropriateness of Jay and Carlin’s relationship given just how close they are, and Cyn’s eyes are opened to the possible negative interpretations when another coach (Tyee Tilghman) at a match mentions that Jay is very “hands on” and “old school” with Carlin. It’s the type of behavior that was the norm not that long ago, but makes you uncomfortable to watch in 2018. Rafaeli takes great care in her direction to make clear that Jay has nothing but pure intentions, but as you watch him help a teenage Carlin stretch her hamstrings, you have to wonder where the line is, especially as she ages. A critical moment in act two that could easily go wrong is well-handled and manages to feel like an earned development as opposed to an addition made for the sake of shock value.
Peet is an impressive playwright—her dialogue is natural and conversational, and the adult characters are smartly seen through the lens of Carlin. Cyn’s transformation is interesting to watch, and nicely played by Gummer in her Los Angeles stage debut. Small touches, like her increasing knowledge of tennis, indicate how swept up in Carlin’s quick success she becomes, and when she starts courting scholarship offers from more prestigious training facilities and coaches, it feels natural that she would be a bit blinded by the promise of potential greatness. It is also worth noting that both Cyn and Jay have experienced disappointments in their own lives, and there is an inevitable element of living vicariously through Carlin to the point where they do not always understand the potential harmful effects of their level of investment. The script plays creatively with the passage of time, crafting multiple effective reveals as Carlin ages and the audience learns what happened to her tennis career during the five year period not shown on stage. Details in the set (Tim Mackabee) are similarly well thought-out, with the number of trophies on the kitchen counter growing between scenes.
As someone who was a young athlete in a high-pressure, individual sport as a child and teenager, I found the themes explored in Our Very Own Carlin McCullough accurate and relatable. It is a complicated thing to have your future hopes and dreams predicated on a specific, time-consuming skill that can all fall apart with one injury or bad performance, and inevitably your parents and coaches get equally wrapped up in that. What happens when the one thing that has been your entire world goes away or does not turn out the way you thought? Cyn, Carlin, and Jay all have very different reactions to the way Carlin’s career ultimately turns out, and all of them make perfect sense. The ending is the right amount of open-ended—while complicated questions are thoughtfully explored in nuanced ways, there is no attempt to force a neat conclusion. While the world of tennis may be specific, the concepts explored through the lens of it are universal, and combined with well-drawn characters and relationships it makes for compelling drama.
Our Very Own Carlin McCullough runs at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse through July 29th. The running time is two hours, including one intermission. Tickets start at $75 ($25 for students) and can be purchased here.