Baseball has lately been on the entertainment agenda. In the film world there is “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” the saga of baseball player Moe Berg, who became a United States secret agent doing valuable work in World War II. Now, on stage, “Toni Stone,” a production by the Roundabout Theatre Company,” celebrates the first woman to play professional big league baseball.
It is easier to create a baseball aura on film than on stage, but director Pam MacKinnon has done well with her team of actors in bringing Lydia R. Diamond’s play to life. The play is based on Martha Ackmann’s book “Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone.”
MacKinnon is fortunate to have April Matthis in the lead as Ms. Stone. Matthis infuses Stone with the fierce determination not to take no for an answer and to find a way to fulfill her dream of playing ball among the men in the league of African-American teams.
The play takes place from the 1920s to the 1950s. We see Toni as a youth who desperately wants to be a baseball player, and we follow her success as she becomes a second baseman. Or shall we say second basewoman? There is the expected opposition of the men who mock the idea of a woman on the team, and the eventual acceptance of Toni.
However, that acceptance comes partially with the idea of using her as a novelty to draw people to the games with the promise of seeing something different. The story unfolds through the narration by Toni framing the enacted episodes in her life.
It was in 1953 that Toni, whose name was Marcenia Lyle Stone before becoming known as Toni, joined the black team Indianapolis Clowns, part of the Negro League, which flourished before African-Americans were accepted into the major baseball teams.
Stone, who died in 1996 at the age of 75, has been a footnote in baseball history, but this play is a step toward gaining her more recognition for her achievement. A problem with the play, however, is that once you set up the basic situation of Toni getting on the team, there is not a lot more to say, although the author does include racial discrimination of the time that Toni and others faced.
But the play’s main strength is the winsome performance by Matthis, who earns audience sympathy and admiration for her portrayal of Toni. She holds everything together with her display of Toni’s spirited persistence. Matthis is very likable, and that goes a long way toward achieving the goal of planting Toni more firmly in baseball history. At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed June 21, 2019.