Actress, Amanda Pete as playwright has given us a moving and nuanced play that soars with the talent of actors, Mamie Gummer (CBS’ The Good Fight, and Meryl Streep’s daughter) and Joe Tippett (NBC’s Rise). Transcending the premise of tennis, the play conveys truths that we can all relate to — the struggles of raising a child, the cost of squashed dreams, the indomitable force of desire; in “Our Very Own Carlin McCullough”, Pete and a powerhouse cast succeed in making us care about the struggles and dreams of the characters, regardless of whether we care about tennis or not.
Ten year-old tennis prodigy, Carlin (Abigail Dylan Harrison) has never known her father whom she and her mother, Cyn (Gummer) acknowledge simply as ‘the sperm donor.’ When scruffy but sexy, has-been tennis star turned bartender, Jay (Tippet) recognizes her talent and becomes her practically-uncompensated, ‘hands-on’ coach, he inadvertently takes up the role of being the surrogate father as well. Together, the financially-strained, makeshift family goes on road trips and tournaments, dreams big, and shares the intimacy which each of them so deserves and is lucky to have found. Naturally, we know a storm is coming.
Trouble arrives with Salif (Tyee Tilghman), a smooth Stanford tennis scout, who convinces Cyn that her daughter’s future lies with more formalized training through a scholarship at The Academy, and that Jay’s unorthodox coaching may hide murkier, predatory intents. Facing doubts about Jay while struggling financially to support her daughter’s expensive trajectory, Cyn goes against her daughter and Jay’s wishes and enrolls her in what amounts up to a factory from which Carlin emerges seven years later, bruised and burnt out (now played stunningly by Caroline Heiffernan). The second act reunites the three of them, but by now, the scars run too deep; and there are also new challenges, the biggest one being that a grown-up Carlin has decided to pursue what she has wanted all along — and it’s not tennis; it’s Jay.
There’s a not a false moment in the show, thanks to the riveting performances of Gummer and Tippet. As the precocious namesake, Harrison and Heiffernan both shine and enable a credible transition. The set design by Tim Mackabee goes seamlessly from tennis club to apartment and hotel room; and the sound design by Lindsay Jones gives us a well-modulated atmosphere that drops us right into their midst.
— G. Dhalla