Football and theater go together about as well as candy and the dentist’s office. At least that was the general consensus until October 21, 2010, when Eric Simonson’s play, Lombardi, premiered on Broadway. The production, which opened this past Saturday, October 6, at the History Theatre, is about precisely what its title implies: legendary—and, more often than not, controversial—Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi. Instead of settling on a play-by-play of Lombardi’s career, however, Simonson crafted his script using David Maraniss’s book, When Pride Still Mattered. The action takes place during the Packers’ 1965 season, and is narrated by rookie Look magazine reporter Michael McCormick (played by a wonderfully vulnerable-yet-determined Peter Middlecamp), who’s been assigned to write a profile of “the real Lombardi.”
Director Ron Peluso and team seamlessly blend together original game footage, period props and clothing, and creative blocking to fashion a combination living room/locker room/football field/bar basement set (designed by Michael Hoover) in which simplicity produces depth. Much of the credit for such an illusion goes to the clever lighting design of Chris Johnson, who reminds us not to underestimate the power of a well-placed spotlight.
But as much as a well-designed set and perfectly placed props can enhance a show, ultimately it is the actors who must convince the audience not only to believe in the story, but also to believe in the characters—an especially difficult task when said characters are as prominent of public figures as was Vince Lombardi. That said, James Detmar more than delivers in his portrayal of the famous coach. His mannerisms, cadence, and range of emotions capture the passion and essence of the man who turned the Packers into a winning franchise, for better or worse. For better: Lombardi’s dedication and single-mindedness led the Packers to win five NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles in nine years. For worse: those same traits made him a hard husband and father, his mood swings and overriding love for football often leaving his kids and wife hurt, emotionally, and in the case of his son, physically.
Putting Lombardi’s personal life into perspective is a task that Simonson charges largely to the role of Marie, Vince’s wife, played fantastically by Norah Long. With blonde wig on head and cocktail in hand, Long navigates the tricky task of portraying what Marie went through as “the” Mrs. Lombardi: trying to stay true to herself while staying loyal to her man. Filling out the cast are Packers players Paul Hornung (Sam Bardwell), Jim Taylor (Eric Knutson), and Dave Robinson (Darius Dotch). The players’ role in both the production as well as Lombardi’s life can be summed up in one scene between Marie and Michael. After failing to get anything of substance for his story by observing Lombardi on the field, Michael asks Marie to enlighten him. Amid telling him about how they arrived in Green Bay and how Lombardi almost gave up football forever, she shares that her husband doesn’t just appreciate his players, he loves them; truly, actually loves them. It’s a tough love, of course, filled with yelling and pushing and bickering, but that was Lombardi’s way—with his players and everyone else in his life.
Simonson doesn’t seek to gloss over the ugly areas of coach Lombardi’s life, and the play is better off because of it. The raw, genuine emotions, both positive and otherwise, are what make this play about football work, satisfying the sports enthusiast and theater buff alike.
Through November 4
History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul