Thoughts on a play: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Most people who know, or at least have heard of, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, know it as a 1962 film starring Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith, a working class young man who escapes his bleak situation by long-distance running. The film started as a 1959 short story by Alan Sillitoe; its latest incarnation is an adaptation by Roy Williams that is playing at Atlantic Theater 2. It’s only playing until Feb. 9th, so if you get a chance, go.

The play has been tweaked to fit today’s issues: Colin is now the son of African immigrants dealing with the same problems of poverty, misunderstanding and disaffection that his previous incarnation suffered in the early 1960s. However, his problems stem less from the class issues that were still lingering in British society in the late 1950s/early 1960s  than modern racism; there are continual references to the London riots of August, 2011.

The cast is, I have to say, superb. Sheldon Best as Colin turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance in a very difficult role — he is onstage constantly, and makes many of his more important speeches while moving or jogging (much to admiration of much of the audience, judging from the conversation in the ladies room afterwards). Charles Isherwood of the New York Times expressed disappointment that Best didn’t turn in the moody, introverted performance that Courtenay was justly celebrated for, but this Colin comes from a different background and lives in different times, and his lively interpretation of an intelligent, confused and rebellious young man is as legitimate and searing.

The entire cast is excellent as well, including Zainab Jah as Colin’s exasperated mother, Joshua Nelson as his best friend, Jasmine Cephas Jones as his girlfriend, Patrick Murney in the double role of a prison bully and a tough policeman, and Todd Weeks as a paternalistic social worker. The director, Leah C. Gardiner, deserves kudos as well for assembling them into a very effective whole.

To tell you the truth, the movie version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is one of those films where I recognized the high quality of the production without being touched emotionally. I can’t say the same about this production. It is both excellent and affecting.

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