Playing with Fire – I never thought seeing a one-man play about the turbulent life and career of a former professional hockey player could be just as fast-paced and thrill-a-minute exciting as watching an actual NHL game. But that is what I experienced when I caught “Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story”, the production which opened the Centaur Theatre’s 49th season.
Based on Fleury’s best selling memoir of the same name, “Playing with Fire” has Fleury (played superbly by Shaun Smyth) recall his life and career from his beginnings growing up in the small town of Russell, Manitoba, to his minor hockey career in western Canada, to the peak of his NHL with the Calgary Flames (where he was part of the team that won the 1989 Stanley Cup), to his tumultuous drug-and-alcohol soaked off the ice behaviour that brought his NHL career to a crashing end while he was with the New York Rangers.
And in between, Fleury shares how this on the edge of self-destruction existence was fueled by growing up in a dysfunctional family, not to mention the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of disgraced minor hockey coach Graham James. It makes one empathize with him for why Fleury ended up in a haze of raw hockey glory, anger, drugs and alcohol, and makes you want to cheer as he bounces back from his hell on ice.
Shaun Smyth perfectly echoes Fleury’s life and emotions in an unforgettable performance (which earned him four curtain calls at the show’s opening night). What makes his performance even more amazing is that he manages to deliver his lines while skating around the stage’s rink set-up, doing plenty of stick- and puck-handling, scoring goals, body checks along the boards, and throwing down his gloves for a good old fashioned hockey fight, and yet never missed a beat (or a slap shot, for that matter).
And speaking of the set, it happens to be one of the more memorable stage sets that I have ever seen in more than 10 years of attending Centaur productions. It is a faithfully scaled version of a professional hockey rink, complete with goalie nets, goal lights, players’ bench, a video scoreboard and even an artificial ice surface. And to make the hockey going experience even more authentic, each performance begins with the singing of “O Canada”, and the intermission has a mini zamboni machine go over the ice surface.
“Playing with Fire” is a powerful, insightful play that scores a theatrical hat trick, which authentically captures the adrenaline rush of the life of one of the bad boys of the modern NHL, along with all the anger, sadness and toxicity that encircled Theo Fleury’s life and career, and how he nearly burned himself as a result of it. This is one show that any hockey fan in this city should not miss. It continues at the Centaur until October 29. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to www.centaurtheatre.com, or call 514-288-3161.