A two-decades old incident in the usually refined world of figure skating is the basis for “T.,” Dan Aibel’s new play that examines the lead up to the thwack heard ’round the world. It would become one of the biggest sports scandals in modern history.
In the early ‘90s, skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were rising stars in the sport, the two stylistically different athletes often facing off in competition. The former was a tough upstart from the wrong side of the tracks; the latter was seen as the princess of figure skating. Both dominated on the ice and were Olympic hopefuls.
When: To June 25
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron
That now infamous incident, at Detroit’s Cobo Arena during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1994, occurred one day during practice when a masked man hit Kerrigan above the knee with a police baton. Kerrigan couldn’t compete, and Harding won the event. However, both were awarded spots later that year on the Olympic team, setting up what would become an unusually nerve-wracking showdown amidst media frenzy in Lillehammer, Norway.
Aibel’s 95-minute piece, a mildly interesting take on a somewhat tired topic, uses creative license to fill in the story of T (Leah Raidt) and her relationships with her ex-husband Jeff (Tyler Ravelson), her dedicated coach Joanne (Kelli Simpkins) and her father Al (Guy Massey).
The play, now on stage at American Theater Company, explores issues of class and competition among rivals. It opens with Jeff and his sidekick and T’s sometime bodyguard Shawn (Nate Whelden) plotting moneymaking strategies. Jeff, a volatile schemer who rants about all the attention and endorsements Kerrigan is getting (he refers to her as “Snow White with dentures”), presents himself as an idea man whose marketing brainstorms range from the usual T-shirts to the long shot — asking New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for backing (“He likes underdogs”).
Jeff is also a bit of a Svengali, and tries to reign in the spirited Harding by appealing to the level-headed Joanne who just wants T to focus and do well in competition. Jeff has his eye on a bigger prize — lucrative endorsements — and how T skates, he says, “is only part of the issue.”
T does not subscribe to the athletic norm: she drinks, she smokes, she has asthma. She also has her powerful and difficult triple axel (she was the first American woman to land one), something Jeff wants her to avoid on the ice. But, while advice comes to her from many different directions, T does things her way or no way. (Raidt is good with Harding’s imagined contemplative side, but she doesn’t quite capture the skater’s edgy toughness that was so in contrast to Kerrigan’s elegant style.)
Jeff is obsessed with giving T the upper hand in the competition. As he and Shawn plot their attack, clues are carelessly left behind for investigators , and as everything begins to unravel, you can’t help but wonder: How did these two clowns ever think they would get away with this?
Aibel deftly captures the despicable side of the story embodied by the two conspirators so consumed by misguided ambition and hatred of anyone standing in their way. And director Margot Bordelon thankfully steers the actors away from any broad, campy interpretation, which could be a temptation here. Simpkins is especially good as the dedicated coach who doesn’t see the bad coming until it’s too late.
After the Olympics, neither skater competed again. To this day, Harding maintains her innocence. Will we ever know for sure if she was involved? Probably not, which leaves the story open for more speculation. In addition to “T.,” there’s already been a rock opera and a TV movie and coming in 2018 is the feature film, “I, Tonya,” starring Margot Robbie. More evidence that we’re not quite done with the icy saga of Tonya and Nancy.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.