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A Play Inspired by a 1978 Tackle

“How will you be remembered?” asks the home page for the website of the current production at Hartford’s TheaterWorks, “Playing the Assassin.” David Robson’s 80-minute drama depicts a testosterone-charged encounter between two men in a hotel room; but the question is pertinent because the play was inspired by a 2010 obituary. Or, to be more precise, its headline: “Jack Tatum, Whose Tackle Paralyzed Player, Dies at 61.”

“I was a huge football fan as a kid,” Mr. Robson said. “I remember when the hit occurred.”

But the unsparing summation disturbed him. “I knew he was much more than that,” Mr. Robson said. “Any person is far more than the one terrible thing or one wonderful thing that they’ve done. And I thought how tragic that is.”

In short, a play was born. Taking off from what happened during a 1978 preseason game between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots, when Mr. Tatum, Oakland’s star safety, tackled Darryl Stingley with enough force to render him quadriplegic, Mr. Robson envisioned a future for two similar players after a similar incident. “The what-if question,” he said. “What if they would have reconciled? Unfinished business is often where a play starts for me, because I can use my imagination to kind of finish some of that business.”

The play began its journey to Hartford in a well-received production in Mr. Robson’s hometown, Philadelphia. But the playwright, 48, saw some more unfinished business.

“There were certain things about the way the story unfolded I wasn’t completely happy with,” he said. So when Joe Brancato, the artistic director of the Penguin Rep Theater, in Stony Point, N.Y., asked if he would be willing to do some more work on it, Mr. Robson jumped at the chance.

Casting Ezra Knight as the older, still powerful safety and Garrett Lee Hendricks as a young striver trying to engineer a reunion between the player and the man he had injured, Mr. Brancato directed “Playing the Assassin” at Penguin to favorable reviews in September; now Hartford theatergoers can enjoy it without traveling to New York. Unless they want an encore — Mr. Robson’s next play, a comedy called “Priceless,” opens at Penguin in October.

Article from The New York Times; Published April 10, 2015

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