A locally written and produced play, which is about one of the most colorful characters in Major League Baseball history, returns to an Orange County stage for a third run—for the first time in 15 years. Rube!, which in the interest of full disclosure was written by OC Weekly’s longtime, award-winning theater critic Joel Beers, lands on the Curtis Theatre stage in Brea on Sept. 13.
The lauded play about ace pitcher Rube Waddell made its world premiere at STAGEStheatre in Fullerton in 2003 and was part of the OC Theater Festival at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center the following year.
Waddell pitched during the first decade of the 20th century, most notably for the Philadelphia Athletics under another legend, manager Connie Mack. The hard-throwing lefty posted amazing statistics but generated as much if not more buzz because of his bizarre antics. He’d walk off the mound in the middle of games to go fishing, get distracted by opposing players holding up shiny objects and find himself in the middle of mayhem off the field thanks to his unpredictability and oversized personality (along with possible mental illness and a drinking disorder).
After nine blazing years in the big leagues, Waddell was essentially sent to the showers for the final time. Less than three years after his departure from the game he loved, he died penniless and alone.
Rube! is structured around sportswriter Grantland Rice setting out 10 years after Waddell’s flame-out to sort through the tall tales and notorious exploits to uncover the real man. But the more Rice dives into his subject, the larger the legend grows. Beers’ play—set against early-20th-century segregation, women’s suffrage and other social strife—is populated by historical figures from that era, including muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell and Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Chief Bender and Ed Delahanty.
The new production is directed by veteran actor and director Patrick Gwaltney, who helmed the Rube! world premiere that won a rave from then-Orange County Register theater critic Eric Marchese. “Despite Beers’ disclaimer that Rube! takes liberties with the facts, the net result is a rowdily funny show that, like its hero, has a heart the size of a baseball diamond,” Marchese wrote in his Oct. 17, 2003, review.
The Muckenthaler follow-up brought out then-Register sports columnist Randy Youngman, who wrote of having “thoroughly enjoyed” the production. In his July 22, 2004, review, he added, “If you’re a sports fan, a baseball fan or merely a theater fan, you’ll also be entertained by Rube!”
T.J. Simers, then a sports columnist with the Los Angeles Times, had a more spiritual connection to the same show. In his report, published July 21, 2004, Simers noted that every night Rube! was performed the previous year, the Chicago Cubs won in a season in which the team came close to playing in the World Series. During the 2004 run, Beers’ beloved Los Angeles Dodgers began winning consistently while Rube! was in rehearsals, and the week before Simers saw the play, the Doyers won four in a row, wins that coincided with the first four Muckenthaler performances, he wrote.
The Rube! producers gave credit to the play’s otherworldly mojo, according to Simers, who was also told by Darcy Hogan, a member of the California Society for Paranormal Research, that she saw the supernatural the night she attended. “I noticed something lingering in the center of the auditorium,” Hogan reportedly said, “and toward the middle of the second act, it started swooping down to the stage.”
We can’t promise a poltergeist in the new Rube! run, although Beers may have worked one into his play’s newest draft, based on what he recently posted on his personal blog: “My job with this thing was over more than 10 years ago, but I still like changing things and not telling anyone. What’s a rehearsal without new lines for everyone? During auditions, I just sat there and made loud noises, withdrawing cherries from a plastic bag, infuriating my director, who had to miss the first game of his two boys’ summer Little League season. The day AFTER their birthday!”
Beers says his longtime fascination with Waddell began when he was 9 years old. That Christmas, his uncle showed up with a board game called Superstar Baseball that included cards with stats and biographical information on about 72 players. “But no words on the back of those cards were as compelling as those of Rube Waddell, one of the strangest men to ever play the game of baseball,” Beers wrote on his blog. “Some 20 years later, I finally decided to entertain that fascination with him and write a play.”
Rube! at the Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 990-7722; curtistheatre.com. Opens Sept. 13. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Sept. 29. $22-$30.
Boston University ’22 | Journalism