Playwright Michael Cristofer sees prizefighter Emile Griffith as a tragic hero — his “flaw” less a character failing than a single flash of rage. So the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning author of “The Shadow Box” has built a Caribbean-tinged classical tragedy around what he calls the “brown boy” immigrant from the U.S. Virgin Islands who became a six-time champ.
The stark, impressionistic play with music is called "Man in the Ring" — a title that turns out to chime with more than the obvious boxing connotations. Characterized as “one man’s fight for love and redemption,” the work premiered two years ago at Chicago’s Court Theatre and is presented here by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through Dec. 22) in a staging more tender than violent that would seem to have its eyes set on a next big bout in New York.
Helmed by four-time Tony nominee Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Dear Evan Hansen”), the production pivots on a touchingly disoriented performance by the fiery Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson, who plays the elderly Griffith sparring with dementia as he shuffles through fragmented, earlier events of his rise and fall. In these bristling flashbacks, an ebullient if quick-trigger Kyle Vincent Terry stands in for the cocky bisexual boxer who chalked up multiple wins in the ring, both before and after pummeling a rival to death in a 1962 fight at Madison Square Garden.
Cristofer, who is also a director and actor (most recently on the television series “Mr. Robot”), first learned of Griffith when he was asked to write the libretto for a 2013 opera about the boxer, with a score by jazz trumpeter and composer Terrance Blanchard. Research for that piece, which has been performed in St. Louis, San Francisco and at the Kennedy Center, must have left the playwright with more to say. And he has channeled that mix of biography, fate and forgiveness into this metaphorical dust-up between darkness and light, outward effervescence and interior pain, the macho mid-20th century world of pugilism and the love that dared not speak its name.
The production, with scenic design by David Zinn, opens on a dim stage encircled by a towering, rotating wall of bricks on which shadowy projections appear as the elderly, broke and broken but still explosive Emile follows his ghosts — the abandoning, exploitative mother; the fatherly if opportunistic fight manager; the trash-talking Cuban boxer who taunted Emile about his sexuality just before the fatal fight — to various locales on memory lane, every stop marked by the mostly upbeat if occasionally mournful music of Griffiths’ Caribbean youth. That island flavor works its way into Cristofer’s script as well, making for a patois-inflected poetry that causes the play to hover between idyll and drama.
Having already decided — upon hearing Thompson deliver the famed opening speech of “Richard III” at Shakespeare & Company from a supine position on the stage floor — that I would follow the actor anywhere, I was more than ready to tag along after Emile, anguished, addled but still harboring shards of joy, as he pursued past, polymorphous loves and the carrot of forgiveness.
But “Man in the Ring” proves to be an artfully concocted journey, on which Thompson’s Emile wrestles, sometimes sharply, sometimes with touching incoherence, his ghosts — not least among them his own optimistic, braggadocios younger self, conscripted into a world that went against his nature but pounded into him the requisite killer instinct — which has by his dementia-fueled dotage petered out.
Mostly bedridden, the old man, brain-damaged since an ambush by thugs as he exited a gay bar years earlier, is tended to by caregiver and former lover Luis, sensitively and playfully portrayed at the Huntington by Victor Almanzar. Between jockeying among and sparring with his memories, Emile is being groomed for an encounter he keenly desires even if he can’t remember it’s coming. And it will make a difference — even if nothing can erase the most bewildering paradox of the old man’s ruined life: “I killed a man and the world forgives me,” he marvels. “I love a man and the world wants to kill me.”
The Huntington production, lit by Ben Stanton, is far from subtle in its clangs of light amid the darkness (the strobe assaults that signal the ends of the many twirling boxing encounters may give you a headache). But Greif’s production is poignantly fluid with, for example, that tall brick wall rotating to reveal young Emile boxing with various opponents as the elderly, unsteady Emile grasps at the ring ropes from the outside.
The ensemble, when not embodying characters from Emile’s past, is effective as a kind of chorus, robustly rendering snatches of the Caribbean children’s songs and more doleful tunes that trigger the tortured character’s memories. An onstage if unseen percussionist, Austin Birdy, ramps up the pugilistic sequences, while guitarist Max Kennedy provides more lyrical underlay. And the deeply embedded kids’ songs provide the reminiscing prods as well as, in the end, the emotional payoff.
In the course of his career, Griffith won and held onto flashy belts signifying supremacy in both welterweight and middleweight categories. And it may be that Cristofer tries a little too hard to push the man and his story into a heftier weight category than they can handle. But if this atmospheric staging, buoyed by Thompson’s Lear-like performance, can’t turn “Man in the Ring” into the tragedy of thwarted dreams and sexual straitjacketing it aspires to be, it can certainly make it a contender.
"Man in the Ring" is at the Calderwood Pavilion through Dec. 22.