Delaware Theatre Co. opens 40th season with touchdown in ‘Sanctions’

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Delaware Theatre Company presents

Delaware Theatre Company presents "Sanctions," written by Bruce Graham and directed by Bud Martin. (Matt Urban)

The Delaware Theatre Company’s decision to open its 40th anniversary season with the gripping world premiere of Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham’s “Sanctions” shows, once again, that it’s not a company to back away from works that may foster difficult conversations. Rather, it embraces them.

“Sanctions” takes a hard look at the underbelly of college athletic programs, showing how big-time money leads to the cult of hero worship and a winning-at-all-costs mentality that guts academic and moral values.

Graham’s fictional university is fresh off NCAA sanctions and gridiron-ready. Problem is, the toxic environment that spawned the cheating scandal is alive and well — replete with racial stereotyping, sexual assault, academic dishonesty, bitter rivalries, backstabbing and rumor-mongering.

Graham based “Sanctions” on a 1980s academic scandal at the University of Georgia. Jan Kemp, an English professor, turned whistleblower when she discovered that nine football players were given passing grades in a class they failed. The following year, she was dismissed. But then she sued and was reinstated.

Kemp is the inspiration for Claire Torrance (Catharine K. Slusar), the play’s protagonist. Like Kemp, she rails against a system that uses student-athletes to make billions of dollars for universities. But those students get nothing in return — not even a decent education. She offers this statistic: Just 1.6 percent of all student-athletes make it to the pros. What, she asks, happens to the other 98.4 percent?

Torrance, who is white, grapples with her own demons as well as the system. She gets support from Ronald Hitchens (Edward O’Blenis), the African-American director of football operations, but their relationship frays when Torrance pushes too hard against the status quo. Tonya Mann (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), also African-American, is her nemesis and academic superior.

Despite taking the high moral road, Torrance, who boasts that past tests have all been shredded to prevent their being passed on to new recruits, can’t seem to wrap her doctoral-level brain around the difference between tutoring and ghost writing papers for student-athletes.

That’s when trouble enters in the form of Abby Barton (Susanne Collins), an overly eager and (seemingly) naïve freshman tutor. Barton tutors the new star quarterback with “character issues” that Hitchens and the football program have chosen to ignore and it’s déjà vu all over again.

Graham has scored a touchdown with this taut 95-minute drama. And Delaware Theatre Company’s production with its stellar cast and deft direction under the company’s executive and artistic director Bud Martin is riveting. Dirk Durossette’s scenic design and Thom Weaver’s lighting effectively evoke time and place, as do Katherine Fritz’s costumes. Joey Moro’s projections provide a stadium backdrop as well as the headlines of the day, while Lucas Fendlay supplies the haunting marching band music.

“Sanctions” by Bruce Graham runs at Delaware Theatre Company at 200 Water St. in Wilmington through Sept. 30. The theater company will also provide a series of panel discussions on the topics of sexual assault and the education of student-athletes.

Fore more information on panel discussions and to purchase tickets, visit www.delawaretheatre.org or call the box office at 302-594-1100.

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