The Packers were 2 and 2 by Saturday, but "Lombardi" was 1 and 0. History Theatre's opening performance of this play about the iconic Green Bay coach was as uncompromising as its subject. The play "Lombardi" is all character and energy, which is fine, since that describes Vince Lombardi the coach, too.
And the man? We're left to wonder. Playwright Eric Simonson points to a few areas of pain and complexity, such as Lombardi's relationship with his wife and children, but he mostly steers clear of them. The coach's most significant relationship was with football, which demanded total commitment and did not nag him to see a doctor about his chronic stomach pain.
Under Ron Peluso's direction, Jim Detmar plays the coach ferociously, delivering Lombardisms with an outsized voice that suggests a Muppet with a megaphone. "I'm talking in a normal voice, 'Rie," he says to his wife, Marie, and she replies, "You never talk in a normal voice."
Through most of the play Detmar wears a business suit and football shoes, sometimes accessorized with a bathrobe and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
The play is set primarily in 1965, six years into Lombardi's career as coach and general manager of the Packers. A reporter for Look Magazine (Peter Middlecamp) has arrived to do an in-depth profile, a device that opens the way to a numbing amount of narrative. It would be too much if not for Detmar's skill at driving the play forward through force of personality.
The actor who offers Detmar the most competition for focus is Norah Long, who gives the steadily drinking Marie a self-contained serenity. "God, family and the Green Bay Packers are the three most important things in his life, and not necessarily in that order," she says, in another nod to pain that the play fails to explore.
The play may not bring much nuance to the Lombardi story, but it covers his greatest hits -- the Power Sweep, "winning isn't everything," and so on -- in a way that delighted the Packers fans in the house on opening night. And theatergoers who don't have green jerseys in their closets might have gotten a better understanding of why Lombardi's legend carries the power that it does -- and why the Super Bowl trophy bears his name.
Michael Hoover's set evokes the design sensibility of a 1960s rec room while also allowing for big-screen projections of game film. It is less successful in accommodating action that is supposed to take place on the Packers' training field. Lynn Farrington's costumes nail the period without getting lost in the potential clutter of football gear.
"Gentlemen, I have never been part of a losing tradition and I do not intend on starting now," Lombardi says. The play does its part to keep the winning tradition going.
Eric Ringham is a Minneapolis writer.