And so, the torture of Cleveland Browns’ fans goes on. Just when we think we have a quick-thinking quarterback with a fast release, Brian Hoyer tears a ligament and is out for the season. So it’s back to the drawing board.
That drawing board has been getting some serious abuse over the 49 years since the Browns last won a league championship. And one of those years is captured in a very human way in The Kardiac Kid, written and performed by Eric Schmiedl.
He and director Bill Hoffman are longtime Clevelanders and Browns fans, and their passion for our beloved football elves oozes from every pore of this encore Cleveland Public Theatre production (its world premiere happened a year ago). Now located at Kennedy's Down Under at PlayhouseSquare, the play is running concurrently with a couple weekends of the Browns season
Once again, Schmiedl spins stories about several fans as the star-crossed 1980 season of the team dubbed the Kardiac Kids wends its way to the tragedy of Red Right 88. That play ended the Browns’ hopes for a championship and crushed the spirits of many who have never fully recovered. Even to this day.
Playwright Schmiedl does a fine job of sketching portraits of these fans, which include a priest, a love-smitten busboy, a superstitious tool & die man, and a teenage girl who comes out of her shell thanks to the team she adopts.
These everyday characters are the heart of this play (it's not about Sam Rutigliano and company, aside from a couple brief play diagrams) and Schmiedl clearly has a deep fondness for all such Browns backers. His larger intent is to reveal the soul of this much–put-upon city and its hardy, ever-hopeful denizens. Studded with detailed local references from that year (the Pewter Mug salad! Ponderosa Steak House!) the memories of that time resonate as these individuals ride the roller-coaster season as their own lives proceed in various directions.
The performance by Schmiedl feels as comfortable as a screen pass to Jim Brown: you just relax, knowing it will turn out fine. As an actor, Schmiedl has an affable nature and this bathes his character studies in a warm glow. While one might wish for a bit more variety in the delivery, Schmiedl enfolds the audience in his own brand of stage magnetism.
However, there is a visual disconnect that eventually begins to work against the play itself. The small stage at Kennedy’s is emblazoned with sheets of paper bearing the numbers of the 1980 team, and the numbers are repeated to create a wallpaper effect.
Yes, the numbers are important, especially in a sport where fans can never really see their helmeted and face-masked heroes. But it is a strangely sterile black-and-white environment for this quiet yet passionate presentation about people who bleed brown and orange.
One yearns, especially in this second viewing of the show, for shelves and tables loaded with Browns memorabilia—the knit hats, the Sipe jerseys, the bobble-heads and garden gnomes and Pez dispensers—that fans have clung to through the death-march of the past five decades.
Would it look messy and cluttered? Yep. And that is what defines the life of a Browns fan now, and for oh…so…many days in the past.
Still, a battered sort of hope springs up again every Fall on the lakefront (Weeden will process information in the pocket faster! He will, he will! Won't he?). And Schmiedl and Hoffman’s play captures a lot of that hope, from a fan's perspective, in arresting and unexpected ways.
The Kardiac Kid
Through October 12 at Kennedy’s Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000