If the handful of theater-goers in head-to-toe Packers gear aren’t a clue, the stage — with a lit-up scoreboard, stadium lights and a football field backdrop — is.
I’m at “Lombardi,” the hit play about legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi making its Arizona debut at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. Four men in their 30s have just taken their seats in front of me, and the rest of the theater is rapidly filling with the customary silver-haired crowd, families with teenage boys, a couple of ladies in furs, lots of young couples, and my husband — a Chicago Bears fan and, therefore, fan of any team going up against Green Bay.
But that’s the thing we soon learn about the play and Vince Lombardi himself: You don’t have to root for the Packers to appreciate either.
Based on the biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” by David Maraniss, the Arizona Theatre Company production opens with actual Packers game footage.
It’s set in November 1965, when the celebrated coach, played by Bob Ari, is fretting over how to take his team to the championship after tying for second in the Western Conference the season before.
Our first encounter is with a familiar image: the man with the thick-rimmed glasses, hat and trench coat, pacing the sidelines. But, as the play reveals — entirely through dialogue and not clashing, heat-of-the-game sports action — Lombardi was more than a quotable caricature.
“He was a philosopher, he was a teacher, he inspired a lot of people through what he said and the way he said it. He’s a fully dimensional man, a complicated man, more complex than people realize,” said playwright Eric Simonson in a release about the play.
Known for his unbending character, no-nonsense leadership and uncanny ability to motivate others, Lombardi had worked as a science teacher and banker. He relied heavily on his faith, attending mass daily, adhering to the Jesuit principle of “freedom through discipline,” and praying for something he knew he needed: patience.
Via scenes on the field and in the coach’s office — and unguarded moments at home with his wife Marie — we learn Lombardi, always demanding of his players, was also tough on himself. From sleepless nights screening game footage to troubling stomach pain, we get a glimpse of the sacrifices that went hand-in-hand with the glory of leading Green Bay to five NFL Championships, including two Super Bowl wins.
The production is smaller than I expected, given the giant at its heart. In fact, when curtain call came at the end of the night, I was surprised to realize just six actors had kept us enthralled for nearly two hours.
Led by Ari as an alternately hot-tempered, gruff, candid and funny Lombardi, the cast manages to fill the playhouse with their respective personas.
Nick Mills is a likeable Michael McCormick, the fictional young reporter through whose efforts to know the coach the play unfolds. Branton Box, William Oliver Watkins and David Hardie play convincing real-life pro-ballers Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor, respectively. DeeDee Rescher injects perfectly delivered humor and a wife’s unmatched perspective as Marie Lombardi, a warm, cocktail-swilling cut-up who can stand toe-to-toe with her husband’s steamroller personality.
A simple but often-changing set (with a “Mad Men”-esque Lombardi living room) helps give the play some movement.
There are enough references to stats and the Packer Power Sweep, the team’s signature play, that football looms large but doesn’t overpower the story’s human element.
And the humans — with all their idiosyncrasies — are the point.
The Lombardi character says late in the play that the true test of a person isn’t his ability to love something beautiful; that’s easy. Instead, it’s in choosing to believe in and give your best to that which is imperfect and unknown. It’s in that constant striving to love what is imperfect, we find perfection.
Given his hero status today, Lombardi found that sweet spot, despite his flaws.
He was, in the fictional McCormick’s words, “the most perfect imperfect man I ever met.”
“Lombardi” runs through Dec. 2 at the Herberger. For tickets and information, call (602) 256-6995 or visit ArizonaTheatre.org.
If you go
What: “Lombardi,” a play about the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers and namesake of football’s Super Bowl trophy.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 23, 24, 30 and Dec. 1; 2 p.m. Nov. 24 and 28; 1 p.m. Nov. 25 and Dec. 2; 7 p.m. Nov. 25; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28 and 29; 4 p.m. Dec. 1.
Where: Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix
Cost: Tickets start at $32.
Information: (602) 256-6995 or ArizonaTheatre.org
Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or firstname.lastname@example.org