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Theater review: ‘The Cockfighter’ will pierce your heart

A lyrical coming-of-age work, “The Cockfighter” is tinged with hope and regret, imbued with a captivating sense of place, and enhanced by heartfelt performances.

In his reverential adaptation, playwright Vincent Murphy has emphasized novelist Frank Manley’s ability to weave uncommon tales about ordinary people. The late Manley, who lived in the hills of Georgia, was a powerfully evocative writer, with a distinctive voice. And, while specific in storytelling details, his work is universal in scope.

Sonny (Benjimin Tracey), nearly 13 years old, longs for acceptance by his stern, distant father. His mother (Mandy Berry), however, is not ready for her only child to grow up. But on a day he must leave childhood behind, he is affected in unexpected ways.

Set in the rural South, Jake (Mark Abels) raises roosters for competitive cockfights. At the time of the novel, 1998, and the play a year later, this blood sport wasn’t illegal. While controversial, in the South it was routine and a gambling vehicle. The Father gives an Arkansas Traveler, groomed to be a champion gamecock, to his 12-year-old son as a rite of passage. The son nicknames him “Lion,” and while Jake cautions him not to get too close, like a pet, Sonny winds up attached to the bird. Nevertheless, he is desperate to please his rigid father.

On Game Day, excitement is high and Sonny’s maternal Uncle Homer (John Reidy) is wagering on a sure thing. The obedient boy, so eager to grow up and be treated as an adult. will experience harsh truths. Adults will let him down. Human behavior and nature will be tested. Sonny is not prepared for the consequences in a cold, cruel world.

In West End Players Guild’s thoughtful, sincere production, the stereotypes are shattered, and the actors bring a dignity out in these four characters. There is a remarkable authenticity, aided no doubt by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, who stressed the truths and the humanity in this poignant script.

You can walk into any tavern in a nearby small town and find that dad — and uncle. You can see the mom at church suppers, quilting with the ladies club. You can see the boy at FFA and 4-H functions, tending to his animals, showing them at the county fair, posing with his ribbons.

Tracey is a rare find, his Sonny real and relatable. Reidy takes a broad role, an alcoholic bruised by life, and makes him comical without being a joke, and Berry is sympathetic as the fretful Mom. Abels captures Jake’s domineering, impatient qualities.

Sevier-Monsey also designed the sparse set, and the minimalist production values allow us to visualize the action in the cockpit. They vividly color Manley’s eloquent prose for our imaginations, helped considerably by Mary Beth Winslow’s sound design.

Through the riveting and moving ensemble, “The Cockfighter” is a small gem, an exceptional drama that pierces our hearts in a mere 80 minutes. Go see this play.

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