It’s not just the play that’s fascinating. It’s the whole real-life story, from top to bottom.
At the quaint Theater Wit on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, you can now see the captivating story of the incredible friendship between esteemed Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Gene Tunney, in Shaw vs. Tunney, written by Douglas Post, directed by Nick Sandys, and produced by Grippo Stage Company. It’s all true, and it all stems from the storytelling of Tunney’s actual son, Jay R. Tunney.
Jay R. Tunney shifted from entrepreneurship to starting another career dedicated to carrying on the tale of his father’s seemingly implausible connection with Shaw. In 2000, he wrote a radio program that aired on BBC, then proceeded to write a novel called “The Prizefighter and The Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw.” It is the latter that this new play is based on.
I came into the performance knowing one of the two main characters–playwright George Bernard Shaw–as well as having some knowledge of his craft. Unfortunately, I couldn’t utter one intelligent word on the subject of boxing. But somehow, through the smartly crafted interactions between the unlikely pair and the witnessing of a deep friendship unfold, I walked away understanding something of it; if not the intricacies of fight strategy nor even all the terminology, then perhaps the beginnings of the why. Why do we fall in love with and dedicate ourselves to anything? The mind becomes focused, the emotions arrested, and the rest unfolds in what you may perceive as either a chosen life path or destiny.
I’m like many others in getting captured by the curiosity of an “unlikely pair” story. Men of two different walks of life crash into one another and find a common ground beneath them–and while the common ground may shift like sand, we, as audience members, navigate with the characters to search for the pathway where they find a solid standing.
Richard Henzel (George Bernard Shaw) and Sam Pearson (Gene Tunney) portray the wit and personal drive that Shaw and Tunney undoubtedly both possessed in their professions and in their personal lives. The audience comes to recognize the mutual respect–and awe for one another–that is passed enthusiastically between them. But then, with the illness of Tunney’s wife, Polly Tunney (debuted by Maddie Sachs), the play takes us to the quiet edge of fierce desperation and love, where the two men’s diversion of spiritual beliefs force them into making a simple choice that defines true friendship: walking away from one another or standing together to understand life through the other person’s eyes.
I’m always astounded at how the simplicity of time and place in a play (both written and physically presented on stage) can continually keep a group of viewers enraptured for hours. In the case of Shaw vs. Tunney, it’s a testament to the seamless development of the characters and their interactions, as well as the thoughtfulness as to how the set design can elevate the meaning behind the written dialogue (even if that meaning isn’t revealed until the very end…).
It was delightful to smile at the lighthearted banter of the hilarious Shaw, to feel the rattling strife of the passionate Gene Tunney, to listen closely to the intimate narration by Polly Tunney, and to join the characters on stage as they contemplated life’s coincidences and miracles. (All alone in a seat, I feared someone might see me when each performer made me well up at multiple points in the production.) And it was even more delightful to imagine that if I chatted with every person in the audience, the interests and knowledge would encompass the entire range between art and boxing. How special it is to have flourish within the theater exactly what is emulated on stage.
So, go ahead and allow yourself an evening of really great storytelling that will make you laugh, cry, and think in heartfelt ways. You can grab tickets to this impactful play at 1229 W. Belmont Avenue now until July 8, 2023, for $38 to $42.
For more information, visit www.theaterwit.org.