Last week I made my way to Montgomery to view the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Bear Country, a play about the life of Paul "Bear" Bryant. I will confess up front that I went into this super skeptical. I was very young when the film "The Bear" came out and though I saw it in the theater, I remember nothing about it other than my family complaining the entire car ride home about how bad it was and what a disservice it had done to the memory of Coach Bryant. For the sake of full disclosure, that's the baggage I was carrying into this performance.
I'm pleased to report that the ASF has done a remarkable job with Bear Country. A wise decision was made to tell the story in non-linear fashion and this keeps things lively and interesting. The basic setup for Bear Country is that it's Coach Bryant's last day at the university and he is packing up his belongings and reminiscing over his long career in football. Coach Bryant's flashbacks allow for a series of episodes from throughout his life to be told, but not having to do so in the rigid form of an actual timeline. Hearing the elder Bryant's thoughts on things that happened to him in his younger days really keeps things fresh and interesting.
In order to make this work, there are two people playing Coach Bryant. Rodney Clark plays the elder Coach Bryant and is the focus and star of the production. Gregory Jones plays the young Bryant that the elder Bryant is reminiscing about. The two even appear onstage at the same time and it is an effect deftly handled by playwright Michael Vigilant. Two other actors, John Patrick Hayden and Yaegel Welch round out the cast and both men handle roughly half a dozen roles each throughout the production.
Much like Allen Barra's splendid The Last Coach, Bear Country doesn't shy away from the controversial parts of Coach Bryant's life. There are powerful scenes dealing with the integration of Alabama's football team as well as the alleged game fixing between Alabama and Georgia and accusations from Georgia Tech about Bryant teaching brutal techniques.
Needless to say, the good parts of Coach Bryant's life are there in abundance too: his recruitment to Alabama from Arkansas as a player, his winning of national championships as a coach, his marriage to Mary Harmon, his instilling of great work ethics in the young men he coached. The script is also liberally sprinkled with many of Coach Bryant's great quotes. Small things like a segment of The Bear Bryant Show complete with Coca-Colas and Golden Flake chips will put a smile on fans' faces and bring fond memories of his time at Alabama. There's even a couple of jabs at Auburn thrown in for good measure (playwright Vigilant is a Michigan State fan for the record.)
I intentionally took someone with me that isn't an Alabama fan (or even a football fan for that matter) to get an objective opinion and she found Bear Country enjoyable as a theater fan, which is good news for those of you with football-apathetic wives, husbands, girlfriends, etc. There are a few times were the script is a little clunky in setting a scene up, but that's a minor quibble and those rare instances are few and far between (and will probably go unnoticed by most people.) Overall, Bear Country provides the viewer with an endearing portrait of a legendary man that will have you inspired, laughing at times and possibly even shedding tears at others. .
Bear Country runs through Sunday, February 22nd. For more information, contact the Alabama Shakespeare Festival box office at 334.271.5353 or 1.800.841.4273 or visit them on the web.