Review: In Theatre Aspen’s ‘Coach,’ Beau Bridges delivers inspirational pep talk for the game of life
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Coach,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Saturday, Sept. 21, 4 p.m.
Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office; theatreaspen.org
Theatre Aspen’s inaugural one-person show festival, Solo Flights, opened Wednesday night with the world premiere of “Coach: An Evening with John Wooden.” Written by acclaimed writer-producer John Wilder and starring multiple award-winning actor Beau Bridges, the play explores the exemplary life of coach John Wooden.
Both Wilder and Bridges are UCLA alumni who knew and admired the iconic basketball coach that led the Bruins to 10 national championships. Bridges played on Wooden’s team in college, while Wilder heard him speak at his high school letterman banquet in 1954. A signed copy of Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” still hangs on the wall of his office.
Wilder first planned to write a film script, but decided on a one-person play to give audiences the same feeling he’d had sitting in Coach Wooden’s den, listening to his stories. Directed by Joe Calarco, the onstage version employs minimal props and a couple of stools to suggest a humble man cave, where Wooden, portrayed by Bridges with the pragmatic warmth of a midwestern grandfather, is gracious enough to host us.
Early on, a phone call interrupts the visit. UCLA wants to name a new sports pavilion after Wooden, but he will accept the honor only if his wife is included on the marquee — and only if her name appears before his.
“None of this would have happened without Nell,” he says.
“Coach” is not only the tale of one of the most successful coaches in the history of basketball, it’s the story of a man who loved one woman for all of his adult life — with everything he had.
“She was the mirror I looked into find the truth,” he says.
It’s this search for truth and willingness to admit faults that make “Coach” irresistible. Entering manhood during the era of Jim Crow laws, he stood against them. But in reminiscing about his interactions with black players, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he regrets his limited awareness of the obstacles they faced.
“I thought I was color blind,” he says, “but I was just blind.”
Bridges once described Wooden as “decent, right to the bone.” And that’s the character he brings to life — a man who will only celebrate his achievements if all the people who made him who he is are invited to the party. In today’s “look at me” culture, it’s refreshing to settle into an evening of storytelling focused on the ethics and values that not only shaped the life of one man but that helped define the character of a nation in tumultuous times.
On the court, Wooden encouraged his team to pass the ball and celebrate a scoring shot by pointing out the man who gave the assist. In their evening with Coach Wooden, both Wilder and Bridges clearly point to Wooden as their inspiration to “make every day a masterpiece,” right up to the final second on the clock.