It does not take long for Charlie, a boxing trainer, to notice Leon’s natural talent. Sure, Charlie is white and Leon is black, but the color divide is (somewhat) immaterial when an athletic kid can land a powerful punch, even during London’s 1981 Brixton Riots. The relationship between these two is the foundation of Roy Williams’ high-energy Sucker Punch. Set over the span of seven years, the Studio Theatre’s latest drama follows Leon’s ascension in the boxing world while racial tension and Thatcherism undermine Leon’s victories, whether they’re athletic or personal. Through confidently-staged brawls, director Leah C. Gardliner’s coming of age story has the power of a hay-maker.
When Leon (Sheldon Best) first shows up at the gym, he’s not there to train. Alongside his best friend Troy (Emmanuel Brown), Leon breaks into the office, only to be caught by Charlie (Sean Gormley). He sets the boys to work instead of calling the cops – Williams never quite supplies a reason why – but Charlie puts Leon on a training regimen after he gets into a row with Tommy (Lucas Beck), a young white boxer. Leon develops a small following after his first two bouts, so when he flirts with Charlie’s daughter Becky (Dana Levanovsky), newfound cockiness wins her over. His record and reputation only improve, so Leon soon finds himself in the national spotlight.
During the fight scenes, the action moves from Charlie’s gym to a brightly-lit boxing ring. Leon narrates his bouts, offering real-time reactions and strategy. Lights and sound sharpen the experience; thanks to sound designer Lindsay Jones and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, there are wounding thuds when Leon throws a punch, and the lights resemble flash bulbs. We can hear the excitement and fear in Leon’s voice – Best’s performance rightfully earned a standing ovation – and the rhythm of the language deepens the monologue’s power. We’re hooked into caring about and Leon and what becomes of him. Thinly-veiled racism is never far from the characters’ mouths, yet Leon tries to do right by Charlie, Troy, and the others. Hostility between the police and London’s black population eventually divide the gym, forcing Leon to take a side. By choosing his career over Becky and Troy, loneliness accompanies Leon’s success.
The cast has no problems with Williams’ writing, even though it’s layered and offers little sense of comfort. Gormley is believable as the weathered trainer; he speaks out of the corner of his mouth and moves with the deliberate severity that would accompany a retired fighter. The younger cast members, especially Best, instill more graceful energy into their characters. Levanovsky’s Becky is the emotional center, and her frayed disappointment with Leon, as well as her father, is quietly convincing.
Still, the inevitable fight sequence between Troy and Leon is the play’s climax, and it’s a doozy. The bravura fight sequence is where the actors and production team recreate the escalating intensity of a grudge match. But despite the stylized fight sequences, the real scene-stealers are Michael Rogers as Leon’s father and Lance Coadie Williams as Troy’s manager. Both actors condescend to Leon and Troy with biting cynicism that oscillates between humor and cruelty.
The play ends in 1988, the year after Thathcher starts her third term, with Leon arriving at an unlikely epiphany. It’s not a triumphant realization – Williams is too fearless for that – yet it is informed by real heartbreak and disillusionment. Full of defiance and anger, it only finds a note of solace because Williams sees Leon (and to a lesser extent Charlie) with clear-eyed honesty. Sucker Punch says more about the atmosphere surrounding Thatcherism than any typical rags-to-riches story ever could.
Sucker Punch is at The Studio Theatre until April 8th. Buy tickets here!