‘Bear Country' Gets High Marks

I met legendary Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant in person only one time, and that was only for a few minutes. Now, I feel like I know him better.

All Alabama fans -- and football fans, in general -- need to check out "Bear Country," a play being performed at Montgomery's Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The production was recently extended to February 20, and no wonder. It is outstanding entertainment.

The wit, wisdom, humor and spirituality of Bryant are captured wonderfully by veteran actor Rodney Clark (no relation), who has been on soaps like All my Children, Guiding Light and One Life to Live, in addition to starring in plays like Death of a Salesman. Clark has been at the ASF 14 years.

Clark portrays Bryant during his final days, as the coach cleans out his office and reminisces on a life of football memories, all the while showing a spiritual side by humming the familiar hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

He watches himself as a teenager at his uncle's hotel, listening on the radio as his future team from Tuscaloosa beats the Washington Huskies in the 1926 Rose Bowl.

Bryant's uncle explains that Bama needs a turnover, and explains that that means taking the ball away from the opponent.

"That's stealing in the Bible," says Bryant's friend.

"Not against Yankees," replies the uncle, to the crowd's delight.

The crowd was filled with Tide fans, men decked in Bama polo shirts and ladies wearing the familiar hounds tooth. We were treated pre-performance to a sound mix of piped-in crowd noise and the sounds of the Million Dollar Band.

Clark, as Bryant, watches as his younger self (portrayed by Gregory Jones) is recruited first to play for Fordyce High and later The University of Alabama. His recruiter and later assistant coach, Hank Crisp, is played by John Patrick Hayden, who constantly refers to Bryant's hometown of Moro Bottom, Arkansas, as "More Buttocks," drawing guffaws from the audience. He also tells Bryant the Tide player to shrug off a broken leg and play against Tennessee with a reference to Lazarus of the New Testament. More laughs, but Bryant actually did that.

The youthful but talented Yaegel T. Welch plays Bryant's childhood friend and several other roles, including radio announcer and black student protester calling for Bryant to recruit African-American players. All the actors but Clark have multiple roles in this four-person production.

There is only room for so many topics in the two-hour show, but playwright Michael Vigilant hits most of the highlights. It would have been nice to see some mention of the 315 win over Auburn or Bryant's final victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, but those events didn't make the cut. The ball that the elder Bryant tosses around is a relic from the 315 game, however.

Sportswriters shouldn't take it personally the way Bryant rails on them. Some things never change, as current Bama Coach Nick Saban feels much the same way. (Most of the sportswriters Bryant is angered at in the play are from out of state, such as Furman Bisher of Atlanta. In actuality, Bryant had good rapport with Alabama scribes.)

So, how accurately does Clark portray Bryant? Some have said his voice is not deep enough, but that's nit-picking. Clark's baritone, in my opinion, is close enough to Bryant's bass to get the job done.

Said Clark, "It's almost a no-win situation. We go for the voice, not for the pace of the way he talked."

It helps that Clark is 6-foot-4 and removes his hounds tooth hat when indoors.

And Bryant's folksy manner, as portrayed by Clark? "I thought it was pretty good," said Colin "Big C" Maguire, a manager on a pair of Bryant's national title teams in 1978-79.

I won't reveal more details, but know this: If you're a Tide fan, don't depend on the rumors that "Bear Country" could be brought to Birmingham and/or Tuscaloosa in the near future. Act quickly, and log on to www.asf.net or call (800) 841-4273. You have only until February 20.

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