“Lombardi” at the Human Race Theatre
After the National Anthem, a man in an overcoat and hat walks slowly down stage and stops, regarding those in front of him. He carries, almost caresses something. He holds it aloft. “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Take a deep breath, ladies and gentlemen, this is a helluva play. This is “Lombardi.”
Vincent Lombardi was – and is – a legend and remains a sports icon right down to the Super Bowl trophy named for him. “Lombardi,” the play now at the Human Race Theatre, sheds more light on Lombardi the man, always on the edge of his demons, driven by perfectionism in everything – family man, devoutly religious, teacher – COACH!
“Lombardi, A Winning Drama” was written by Eric Simonson, based on David Maraniss’ book “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.” Edward Furs gives us Lombardi in all his angst, all his bombast, in a high-energy drive that just doesn’t stop. He is his own obsessed football metaphor: “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” We see real Green Bay Packers’ footage on a flexible backdrop. It is also a locker room blackboard with play diagrams. Furs is an amazing look-alike; features, figure and force. The intensity he maintains is amazing.
Tim Lile, Resident Artist with the Human Race, directs the play. He talked to me about the development of the characters, “We found Ed in our New York audition and he was just head and shoulders above anyone else,” Lile said. “He traveled theatrically a great distance to become Vince. Normally, he’s very gentle and soft-spoken and really had to push to reach this level.”
Lile, so capable of his own energetic performances, brings his various skills together as director. He keeps the no-intermission 100-minute-plus from being one unrelieved rant. The performances of the other five characters – three based on real Packers players, Lombardi’s wife Marie and the young sports reporter Michael McCormick who drives the plot – are quite varied and a welcome relief. Lile is attuned to accents, making sure the Lombardis and McCormick have a bit of the thick New Jersey sound, while Packers player Paul Hornung reflects his Kentucky heritage.
As Marie, Marcy McGuigan brings the alcoholic, resigned, bitter and depressed wife to a quiet, thin reality. With a look, a flick of the wrist, even a flirty little glance she is part of the truth of the actual Lombardi. A line from the play: “I wasn’t married to him more than a week when I said to myself, ‘Marie Planitz, you’ve made the greatest mistake of your life.’” She seethes and endures and finally brings a fury equal to his in a powerful scene.
Jarred Baugh plays Michael McCormick, the young reporter who has been assigned by Look Magazine to write about Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers. He is the unsung hero of this story. On stage almost the whole time, he sometimes silently observes and sometimes interacts with the players, and with Marie. At first worshipping, then sparring with Lombardi, he grows more mature. He conveys empathy or amusement or amazement, quietly, unobtrusively. His opening and closing monologues bring continuity and reality to this very powerful view of people of singular purpose.
The three Packers’ players establish Lombardi’s relationship with his team, as well as providing a bit of background. They charge in, clad in helmets and convincingly dirty sweats, or later they’re cool dudes playing pool. It is a welcome respite from the intensity.
Gabriel Lawrence plays Dave Robinson, who makes it clear that Lombardi was very aware of discrimination and made sure all his players, including African-Americans, slept and ate in the same accommodations. He brings physicality to his role and the uniform while establishing the effectiveness of having a players’ organization to negotiate on their behalf.
Ryan Imhoff plays Jim Taylor, who has almost as much difficulty in compromising as Lombardi. Such is his devotion to the team and his best future prospects that he wilts convincingly under Lombardi’s tirades. Imhoff lets us see the anger remaining just under the surface.
Brandon Dahlquist plays Paul Hornung, fabled number 5, bad boy no matter what, barely compliant. Lombardi makes changes, settling him into the fullback slot instead of the five different positions of previous seasons. The cocky swagger never disappears even when he’s facing the coach’s full ire.
Opening night presented a challenge for Dahlquist and the entire cast with the real life Paul Hornung at the Loft, sitting in the front row. From my own vantage point, I could see the 77-year-old’s face, listening intently, smiling, eyes glued to the stage. He went backstage after the show and visited more than 20 minutes. I heard it was a celebration of mutual admiration and delight. He loved the play and reportedly said, “Furs was Lombardi, exactly as I remembered him.”
Producing Artistic Director Kevin Moore said, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” referring to the enthusiasm this show has generated. Men are buying tickets; men are making reservations. Director/Coach Lile, praised his theatrical team, their accomplishments and skill, can-do attitudes. Scenic Designer Tamara L. Honest made the quick location and era changes work with furniture on platforms sliding out from the back screen. Resident Lighting Designer John Rensel always creates sophisticated, subtle solutions. Sound Designer Matthew P. Benjamin and Video Designer Shaunn Baker bring Lambeau Field and its sweaty locker room to the Loft stage. Not all the audience was football fans, as expressed at the opening night post show party, but there was genuine admiration for a stunning victory at the Loft stadium. Go team, go!
“Lombardi” plays at the Loft through Feb. 24. Call Ticket Central at 937-228-3630 to reserve or go to www.humanracetheatre.org for specific kick off times.
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.