Darren Lemming is rich, arrogant, entitled, bulletproof.
He can be sarcastic and even chilly, but mostly he is just matter-of-fact about his athletic and social divinity. His assumption of invincibility is, not untypically, an on-ramp to hubris.
And Steven Gray is, well, none of those things. But this week he is Darren Lemming.
“It’s like a suit I get to put on for a few hours every day,” Gray said.
For the next three nights, he puts it on under the unforgiving lights of Gonzaga University’s Magnuson Theatre, in a staged reading of “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning play about a baseball superstar whose public declaration of his homosexuality sets in motion events first predictable and then tragic.
By Saturday night, he’ll be back at the McCarthey Athletic Center in the other suit he puts on for a few hours every day, the one with “Gonzaga” stenciled across the front, for the Bulldogs’ basketball opener against Mississippi Valley State. Then another drama will unfold – this one spaced over months and likely unpredictable. Surely we’ll witness some growth in Gray’s game in his third year as a Zag – just maybe nothing as remarkable as what’s transpired on stage:
A scholarship athlete getting – and taking – the opportunity to be something more.
This may not be such a comfort to those so consumed by the Zags that the thought of Gray not spending all his waking non-classroom hours in the gym hoisting jump shots is heresy, though it is anything but – especially in the context of Gonzaga’s mission.
“This has opened up a whole new community for me,” Gray said.
So what it is, is a fresh breeze.
Gray felt it first this past summer, when he went to watch a friend in the outdoor production of “The Taming of the Shrew” in the courtyard at Gonzaga Prep. Afterward, the director – the Rev. Kevin Connell, Prep’s principal – approached Gray and Zags teammate Robert Sacre about auditioning for “Take Me Out,” which calls for some African-American casting.
“We joked about it at first,” Gray recalled. “Then I started thinking, ‘Why not do it?’ At least, why not go audition for it? The worst that could happen is I don’t get it and I continue living my life as it was.”
Connell helped make his case with limited rehearsals and a staged-reading production – actors can carry their scripts and don’t have to memorize lines. That, as the director said, “doesn’t mean it’s 10 guys in black turtlenecks sitting behind microphones – the big joke at Gonzaga is that I’m the only guy who puts fight scenes in staged readings.” But it also allowed him to lose the nude locker-room scenes that titillated Broadway audiences as much as the script did.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Gray is exposing himself here – a theatrical rookie in a provocative lead role on a campus where he’s certainly among the five most recognizable figures.
“Basketball is so easy and natural for me,” he said. “I’ve been playing it since elementary school recess. The fact that people are watching now doesn’t change it. But when I started looking at this play, the realization that you’re putting on a show for people is intimidating.”
It’s one thing for Zags coach Mark Few to challenge Gray to bring his “A” game. It’s another thing for Connell to do it, because in that context Gray has “no idea what my ‘A’ game is.”
On top of which, Darren Lemming is no one-dimensional cartoon.
He’s a charismatic, transcendent talent whose success is tied to a supreme confidence that, Gray said, is also his “tragic flaw – because he can’t connect and put himself with people.” To bring him to life, Gray tried to connect some dots.
“There are little parts of different people in it,” he said. “We could even take people from last year’s team – like Jeremy Pargo in a sense. He’s outgoing, he’s going to grab the attention whenever he’s in the room, and that’s kind of how Darren is. And then there’s the cockiness of someone like Terrell Owens – you know he’s arrogant, but what are you going to do about it?”
But beyond character development, there’s been Gray’s own.
He did, in fact, try to keep his participation in the play from his teammates for a time – without luck.
“Now it’s, ‘I hope you know we’re coming to your play,’ ” he said. “Well, please do. At first I was real nervous about people I knew coming because I didn’t know if I could pull this off, and I didn’t want it to be about me. The more we’ve done it, the more confident I got. Now I’m genuinely excited to do this play and have people come and watch. All the guys are good. It’s fun. It feels natural.
“More than anything, it’s helped me realize that if I want to do something, why not just go ahead and do it? Say I wanted to start a band some day – what’s stopping me? Or something else. The odds are very possible I could do it, that it’s not an unrealistic thing. That’s really opened my eyes.”
“Take Me Out” will be performed tonight and Thursday at 7 and Friday at 10 p.m. at Gonzaga’s Magnuson Theatre. Admission is by voluntary donation.
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