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‘Sanctions’ at Delaware Theatre Company: Hard-hitting Bruce Graham drama

Delaware Theatre Company opens its season with the world premiere of Philly playwright Bruce Graham's "Sanctions," in which a college football program gets started again after coming off NCAA sanctions — and runs right into scandal.

Catharine K. Slusar in "Sanctions" by Bruce Graham, through Sept. 30 at the Delaware Theatre Company.
Catharine K. Slusar in "Sanctions" by Bruce Graham, through Sept. 30 at the Delaware Theatre Company.Read moreMatt Urban at Mobius New Media

The bracing world premiere of Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham's Sanctions at Delaware Theater Company probes how ardent fandom and the money flowing from it can warp judgment and character. Loosely based on a 1980s academic scandal at the University of Georgia, Sanctions evokes other football scandals since, including the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State.

The football program at Graham's unnamed university, just emerging from NCAA sanctions, remains the site of racial stereotyping, sexual assault, academic dishonesty, internecine rivalries, and malicious gossip. That may seem to be an awful lot to pack into one intermission-less, 95-minute play. For the most part, Graham is skillful enough to manage it. And DTC's production, with a first-rate cast under the assured direction of the company's executive and artistic director, Bud Martin, is often enthralling. But the play does burst at the seams, leaving one central plot point – about the blurred line between academic help and cheating in a climate of sanction and suspicion – somewhat murky.

At the heart of the play is the transformation of profoundly flawed Claire Torrance (Catharine K. Slusar, with her usual intensity). Claire, who is white, runs a tutoring program for student athletes. But by the time she returns from a player's funeral, this most ardent of fans has become less of a true believer. The African American director of football operations, Ronald Hitchens (the terrific Edward O'Blenis), is an ally, at least until Claire challenges the status quo. Tonya Mann (Kimberly S. Fairbanks, who does well with the least developed role), also African American, is her academic boss and foe.

Enter eager freshman Abby Barton (Susanne Collins, likable and heartbreaking), eager to teach and less naïve than she at first appears. She takes on the task of tutoring the new star quarterback, whose "character issues" the football program has chosen to ignore. It's a combustible mix.

Dirk Durossette's scenic design, Thom Weaver's lighting, and Joey Moro's projections, providing a stadium backdrop and the headlines of the day, complement the tautness of Graham's script and Martin's direction. Although Graham allows his characters considerable complexity, the moral course seems obvious enough – but we don't guess exactly how the crisis will boil over until it does.