“Fighting Words” by Sunil Kuruvilla is currently playing at Heartland Theatre. This three-woman show, based on a true story, packs a punch.
The linchpin of the play is someone the audience never sees: Johnny (the Merthyr Matchstick) Owen, a real-life boxer from Merthyr Tydfil, a small mining town in Wales. In 1980, Johnny fought for the bantamweight world championship in Los Angeles against heavy hitting Lupe Pintor.
All the men from Merthyr Tydfil flew to Los Angeles for the fight. Johnny was knocked out in the 12th round of a tortuously difficult match. The punch sent him into a coma from which he would not recover. He died seven weeks later.
“Fighting Words” takes place after, then before, then after, the fight in L.A.
Middle-aged housewife Mrs. Davies (Nancy Nickerson), a boxing buff herself, is landlady to two sisters.
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One of them, Nia (Lizzy Selzer), is stifled by the confines of marriage and village life and dreams of being a BBC radio announcer. Her sister, Peg (Jessie Swiech) is constantly shadow boxing. She wants to be a boxer but that’s a dream that won’t come true for a Welsh woman in 1980.
The show explores the effect the village men, and especially Johnny, have on these three women left back at home to watch the fight on a dodgy television.
Outside the boxing ring, Johnny was described by a reporter at the time as a man “so desperately shy that he has turned 24 without ever having had a genuine date with a girl.”
The three women each had a complicated relationship with the enigmatic Johnny. They fight to cement what they see as their legacy on his burgeoning mythology.
Solid directing by Don Shandrow and high production values really help tell this episodic story. The set (Samantha Gribben), lighting (James Morrison) and sound design (Dean Brown) are pitch-perfect.
Nickerson holds the heart of the show and is occasionally heartbreaking. Selzer effectively conveys a longing (and suitability) for a different life.
Swiech (who trained at a gym for this role) goes 12 rounds herself when retelling the story of the fight she took off last minute to see. Sadly, like Owen, she seems destined for an unhappy ending.
Brokaw is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.