Sports fans can no longer pretend not to know, can no longer seek refuge in those euphemisms broadcasters often employ to describe an athlete’s injury, such as “shaken up on the play.’’
We’ve all been shaken up, or shaken awake, by the extensive research on concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that has made painfully clear the toll of all those exciting highlight-reel collisions when it comes to the brains and bodies of pro players, especially in football and hockey.
That toll is the grim subject of “Brawler,’’ a new drama at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, written by talented local playwright Walt McGough (“The Farm,’’ “Priscilla Dreams the Answer’’), and directed by M. Bevin O’Gara.
Set in the locker room of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, “Brawler’’ focuses on a washed-up hockey enforcer named Adam, nicknamed Moose, played by Greg Maraio with striking verisimilitude. The play was inspired by Sophocles’s “Ajax,’’ another tale of a discarded warrior, and by the case of real-life NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died in 2011 of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. A later examination of Boogaard’s brain revealed that he had CTE.
As “Brawler’’ begins, Moose is paying a steep personal and professional price for the repeated head injuries he has apparently suffered during his career. He had enjoyed a pretty good run with the Boston Bruins on the strength of his ability to mix it up on the ice while protecting his team’s stars, such as Odie (an intense Anthony Goes), whom he’s known since childhood. But then Moose was demoted to the minor-league Providence Bruins.
Now Moose’s days with the minor-league team are numbered, and he’s subsisting on painkillers. Moreover, his girlfriend Trisha (Gigi Watson) has turned down his proposal of marriage. It’s hard to blame Trisha, because Moose is out of control. To the annoyance of security guard Jerry (Marc Pierre), Moose has trashed the locker room; the evidence of his just-concluded meltdown can be seen in the broken bench, the overturned water cooler, and the battered wastebasket (the set is by Cristina Todesco).
Moose’s eyes are wide, his face is bruised, and his breathing is heavy as he veers from confusion to anger to childlike innocence and back again. It’s pretty clear that Moose is suffering from a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head during his career. It’s also pretty clear — too clear, in fact — what sort of path he is on.
Though “Brawler’’ does generate fireworks, the play feels a bit underdeveloped. It would benefit from more story and more surprise, another twist or two, and perhaps another character or two, especially if they embodied the forces of management and ownership, who are, after all, pulling the strings.
After its shouty first half, the play settles down and becomes more involving. Moral questions confront the characters in “Brawler’’ — and us, too — that have to do with complicity and responsibility for the well-being of the athletes we rely on to entertain us. Moose’s travails amount to a cautionary tale for Odie, who has been experiencing dizziness since he was tripped during practice, his head hit the boards, and he suffered a concussion. Will Odie heed the tragic lesson of Moose’s fall? The issue is pungently framed by Trisha, who says: “No one should love something so much they let it kill them.’’
Play by Walt McGough. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in collaboration with Kitchen Theatre Company. At Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., through March 18. Tickets $30, 866-811-4111, www.bostonplaywrights.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.