A new drama soon to open off-Broadway takes on the weighty subject of Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS), a term that is all too familiar to those who play or watch football.
“Headstrong” begins previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on April 18, where it will be preparing for an April 30 opening that has a limited run through May 13.
According to Playbill.com, playwright Patrick Link developed the play for E.S.T.’s Alfred P. Sloan Project for New Plays on Science and Technology, and Artistic Director William Carden is directing.
The drama, in which an ex-NFL player finds himself questioning everything in his life after the sudden death of his Pro-Bowler son-in-law, explores the phenomenon of repeated head trauma and its ramifications for athletes, as well as for their loved ones.
Alexander Gemignani, a veteran of Broadway (“Les Misérables,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) and Off-Broadway (“Avenue Q,” “Road Show”), plays the grieving father-in-law who ponders his own potential guilt in the football player’s death.
The 27 year-old Link, a lifelong football fan, was inspired to develop the play while reading Chris Nowinski’s account of his own experiences in a book co-written with ex-pro wrestler Jesse Ventura. “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis From the NFL to Youth Leagues” explores Nowinski’s forced retirement from pro wrestling after a kick to the head left him with a diagnosis of PCS, and it chronicles his subsequent discoveries regarding the insidious effects of repeated concussions.
Nowinski has turned his tragedy into advocacy, co-founding and leading the Sports Legacy Institute, which is dedicated to researching and eradicating PCS.
Two characters of Link’s play are based loosely on Nowinski and Dr. Bennet Omalu, the latter of which the Brain Injury Research Institute describes as the first person to have established a connection between repeated head trauma and dementia. It was Omalu, following his 2002 autopsy of football great Mike Webster, who termed the condition “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease marked by severe dementia symptoms that can occur after repeated trauma to the head — a kind of “worst case scenario” for those diagnosed with PCS.
“Headstrong” addresses the personal struggles faced by a player who has dedicated his life to such a dangerous sport as football. Broadwayworld.com recently quoted Link as he articulated the painful questions with which the drama’s main character must grapple: “If you’re an NFL player, what do you do when the one thing you’re qualified to do — that can generate income for your family, the thing you’ve loved your whole life, that you feel you are designed to do — might destroy your brain?”
But there are larger, societal questions evoked by the piece as well. In the same article, director Carden states, “Science tells us these men put their lives at risk when they go out on that field. But there is a deep need in our culture for heroes, and these men answer that need. So this play is asking, ‘do we lose our heroes if we heed our science?’ It’s a conflict.”
And how much loss must that society suffer before it responds? “When science tells us that our traditions, our passions are flawed,” added Link, “how do we change? What consequence is severe enough to bring about change? If brain damage isn’t enough…what is?”
“Headstrong” joins the growing medical and sports movements in asking these questions. Though currently, there are more questions than answer, it seems likely that such a pioneering work will help to further the discourse.
Sources close to the new play were unavailable for comment to TicketNews.