Eric Simonson titled the play “Lombardi.” But which Lombardi?
Of course, it’s about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who turned the woebegone Green Bay Packers into the National Football League’s dynasty of the 1960s. He might have done the same thing for the Washington Redskins had cancer not ended his life at age 57, and his name adorns the trophy awarded teams that win the Super Bowl.
But, in the play that opened last weekend at Theatre Baton Rouge, it is the coach’s little-known wife, Marie, who shines the brightest. One reason is that’s how Simonson wrote it. Another reason is Charlynn White.
White, a veteran of many TBR productions, is at her best as Marie Lombardi, who functions as the narrator who explains the history and gives glimpses into the behind-the-scenes life of her famous husband. White plays the savvy, kind-hearted and extremely New York character with a twinkle in her eye, revealing her to be one of the few people not cowed by her husband’s overpowering personality.
Most of her interaction in the play, set in 1965, is with Michael McCormick (played by Jeff Johnson), a magazine writer who’s been sent to do the definitive story on why Lombardi is so successful. In an openness to media impossible to imagine today, the Lombardis let McCormick stay in their home, where he gets information from Marie and tries to pry information out of the coach when he’s not preoccupied with the upcoming game, which is pretty much never.
It’s not the easiest assignment for McCormick, who also struggles to get Packer players like Jimmy Taylor (Nicholas Moore), Davie Robinson (Antoine Pierce) and Paul Hornung (Scott Mitchell) to open up to him, largely because they’re as intimidated by the coach as he is. And small wonder.
Vince (Kevin Harger) is a tempermental, authoritarian perfectionist, perpetually demanding things at the top of his voice. Even when he is happy or otherwise calmed down, it doesn’t take much to get him in a shouting rage. It’s a fairly one-dimensional character for a play, but Harger handles it well.
For local theater patrons, this play has a local connection. Taylor, who starred at Baton Rouge High School and LSU before entering pro football, was introduced before the opening night performance, which he viewed with his wife, Helen. The play doesn’t entirely flatter Taylor, suggesting that Lombardi didn’t think him especially smart, but Taylor showed guts by standing up to Lombardi and insisting on bringing an agent in to renegotiate his contract. All three actors bring out different personalities in the players — Taylor as suspicious, Robinson as high-strung and worried about his job, Hornung as the laid-back bad boy who walked as close as he possibly could to the boundaries Lombardi imposed.
Directed by Jason Bayle, the play runs a little under two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. As a work of theater, it will never be confused with Shakespeare, but it’s an often humorous and occasionally poignant look at Lombardi — including the one you didn’t know.