But was he an interesting enough character to carry a play? Or, more precisely, does his character carry the play in the rather flimsy story created by Eric Simonson, whose Lombardi is now onstage at Arizona Theatre Company?
Lombardi is a co-production with the Cleveland Play House. The piece is well put together under Casey Stangl's direction, and the actors turn in admirable performances, especially Bob Ari, who plays the highly focused and demanding Lombardi.
But there's little sense of conflict, of movement—something of import to capture our attention and sympathies. It's an earnest attempt to honor a larger-than-life sports god, but instead of giving us an engaging character full of vitality, Simonson manipulates his story in such a way that Lombardi isn't even really the focus.
In addition, the framework within which the characters move is far from original. The play kicks off with the arrival of a young man, a writer for Look magazine, in search of material for an article, with a hope to offer insights into this man who was establishing himself as the creator of a winning dynasty. So this sets up an opportunity for him—and, conveniently, for us—to see firsthand The Man at work. Nick Mills, as writer Michael McCormick, pokes around and observes and interacts with Lombardi's world, and he also addresses us directly, sharing his impressions, enthusiasm and, maybe, even his disappointments as he tries to understand Lombardi's ways.
So really, it's McCormick's story. But we never get to know him enough to feel for him or care much about him. Simonson's frames his account so that there's a sense of a story, but there's never enough substance to make the writer's modest journey compelling. Even though we think the subject of the play is Lombardi, we see less of the coach than you'd think.
It's his feisty wife, Marie, who fills us in about the life and personality of her intriguing husband as she converses with McCormick, who is a guest in the Lombardi household. We learn much about the couple's history and occasional misadventures in their conversations, and we do get some insight into Marie's hot-tempered husband. Although we do see a few flashbacks relating to Lombardi's personal and professional life, Simonson dances on the line that marks the cardinal sin of playwriting: telling, rather than showing.
Actually, allowing Marie Lombardi to be a major catalyst in his tale definitely works to Simonson's advantage, because she injects some much needed life and humor into the proceedings. Marie is quite the spark plug of a character, who drinks a little too much but can give as good as she gets from her gruff and overbearing husband. DeeDee Rescher gives a devilishly humorous, if slightly over the top, reading of Marie. Sporting several of costumer Alex Jaegar's fancy outfits that scream the fashions of the mid-'60s, she provides a much welcome lightness and energy. The transplanted New Yorker had to get an atlas to locate Green Bay, but has gamely followed her husband to the tiny town and the realm over which he reigns, the "frozen tundra" of Lambeau Field. (Lombardi snarls that he hates that term. Why? "It's redundant.")
It's admirable that Simonson wishes to present a full rendering of Lombardi. The play is based on the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss. There was a complicated man behind the loud, brash, hard-driving and uncompromising coach, and Simonson does try to show us the many facets of this man, who could berate a slacker unmercifully and just as convincingly encourage and inspire an unfortunate underperformer with genuine full-heartedness, conviction and care.
We also learn of Lombardi's deep commitment to Catholicism, a conviction that led him to consider becoming a priest. But he decided that football was his real passion. Simonson partially manipulates the revelation of some of Lombardi's qualities by his inclusion of three of Lombardi's storied players: Paul Hornung (Branton Box), Dave Robinson (William Oliver Watkins), and Jim Taylor (David Hardie). In particular, we learn of Lombardi's anti-racist convictions, insisting that when his players were on the road, the hotels and restaurants they patronized were not segregated. But the characters are not well-developed and the scenes themselves are bland and dramatically pointless.
Ari brings Lombardi to life successfully. We see a driven man who has little issue with ruling his team with a clenched fist and unforgiving force. But at the same time he is a thoughtful, even at times humble man, and one who can be apologetic if he goes too far. Ari gives us a believable and multilayered man of passion and honor.
Michael Schweikardt has created a terrific set, which has stadium lights and a scoreboard, and includes a screen on which are projected the grid lines of a football field. But when other images are projected, those grid lines remain in ghostlike shadow, a subtle suggestion of the power of football over all aspects of the world we see created onstage. From time to time there is also actual footage of Packers games. Lighting designers Lap Chi Chu and T. Greg Squires also contribute very successfully to the visual power of the show.
No, the production is not the problem here. It's a weak script which teases us with a promise of delivering an energetic story about a storied figure, but instead leaves us unattached and disengaged.