LOMBARDI: Gentlemen, This Is A Football

LOMBARDI: Winning Isn’t Everything; It’s the Only Thing!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: November 7 & 8 previews; opening November 9 – 23, 2019

Ticket Prices: $15-$35

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

 

“Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Vince Lombardi

Based on the book When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi (by David Maraniss), Eric Simonson’s two-act play, Lombardi is a living, breathing documentary. Set in 1965, when journalist Michael McCormick from Look Magazine is sent to write a story about the man many consider the greatest coach in football history, the fast-paced, sometimes gritty dialogue gives us a peek into the life of the man remembered as much for his pithy sayings as for his lasting impact on football.

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

— Vince Lombardi

(after UCLA Bruins football coach

Henry Russell “Red” Sanders, 1950, 1953)

McCormick, played by CJ Bergin, has a central role as the reporter who spends a week with Lombardi and his wife Marie in Green Bay, Wisconsin, not long after the Lombardi’s have moved to Wisconsin where Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to five championships in seven years. (Do not be impressed – I know nothing about football – this is general knowledge, easily available to anyone.) Bergin’s character is dedicated and enthusiastic, even in the face of getting yelled at by Lombardi on the football field. He is also a multi-faceted character, as we see how his observations and interactions with the Lombardi’s help shape his own developing career. There is an easiness and familiarity about McCormick that make him a likeable character. In a slightly drunken scene in Act 2 he won my heart – and won over the players – by quoting stats from memory. He knew something – if not everything – about every player.

“Football is like life – it requires perseverance,

self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication

 and respect for authority.”

– Vince Lombardi

Marie Lombardi, played by Linda S. Beringer, is undoubtedly the most likeable member of the cast. She is a mother figure to the players, soothing and smoothing over the raw and open sore left by Lombardi’s abrasiveness. She guides McCormick, steering him to the players who can provide the most insight. Sometimes she is gentle with McCormick, and sometimes she practices tough love, fueled, perhaps, by her close friendship with the couple’s liquor cabinet. (In real life, it seems, a miscarriage led to her heavy drinking.) My favorite Marie scene is when she backs the domineering Lombardi up against a wall and make it clear she isn’t taking any crap from him. It certainly doesn’t change him, or have any lasting impact, but he listens. The two seem to have a strong, loving relationship, and Marie clearly understands her husband and knows how to communicate with him like no one else.

“The most imperfect perfect man I ever met.”

– Michael McCormick

Surprisingly, I did not focus first on the title role, perhaps because this is a true ensemble production, under the skillful direction of Scott Wichmann (billed as Head Coach rather than Director). Wichmann and his actors give us a brisk pace and some well-placed and much appreciated comedic timing that almost obscured a few places where I thought the action was dragging and the play wasn’t advancing quite fast enough for me.

“If you can accept losing, you can’t win.”

– Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi is played by Ken Moretti (Broadway Bound, Free Man of Color, and Bill W. and Dr. Bob) in what is perhaps the most challenging role I’ve see him in, to date. Stern-faced, he rarely smiles, he yells a lot and speaks in a bombastic manner. At the same time, he clearly loves his wife and his players. In one scene, player Dave Robinson (played by Raymond Goode) explains to McCormick – over beers and a game of pool – that yelling at them is how Lombardi shows he cares. So, yelling at McCormick and kicking him off the field probably means he really likes him.

 

“People who work together will win,

whether it be against complex football defenses,

or the problems of modern society.”

– Vince Lombardi

Moretti’s portrayal of Lombardi also makes the volatile Lombardi a sympathetic figure as we watch him succumb to the symptoms of colon cancer – a disease he ignored because he was too busy making football legends. The rest of the cast includes Arik Cullen as player Paul Hornnung and Axle J. Burtness as player Jim Taylor. Cullen’s character is the one McCormick is steered to for information approved by Lombardi. Burtness’ character seems to be always in some sort of unspecified trouble, and McCormick’s unrelenting pursuit of an interview with the character Taylor is part of the reason he gets to feel the full wrath of the mercurial Lombardi directed straight at him.

 

“Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”

– Vince Lombardi

Goode’s character has two major scenes. One, described above, is when he provides insight into Lombardi’s yelling. The other is when he tells how Lombardi demanded that all the team members be allowed to stay in the same hotel even when traveling in the south or areas where segregation was the norm. Dave Robinson, a black football player who is now in his late seventies, played for the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins. Lombardi was head coach of both teams.

“You don’t do things right once in a while.

You do things right all the time.”

– Vince Lombardi

Frank Foster designed the set – a clean and simple space dominated by two pairs of tall bookcases that do multiple duty as home, locker room, and other locales. Some tables and benches, moved by the cast members, define the scene changes. Bri Conley designed the lighting, Sheila Russ did the costume design, and Amanda Durst was vocal coach.

“Battles are won in the hearts of men.”

– Vince Lombardi

As I’ve already said, I’m not much of a football fan, but my partner, Albert is. Like many others in the audience – a full house for Saturday’s opening night – he came decked out in his football attire. In his case, it was a Redskins hoodie, and thanks to our front row seats, he got a momentary spotlight when McCormick pointed him out in the scene where he mentions Lombardi’s short tenure with the Redskins (1969, just prior to his death in 1970). Albert, who attends a lot of plays with me, was enamored of this production; it combined his newfound love of theater with his lifelong love of football (he played in high school and college). A mathematician, he likes facts and stats and that sort of thing. So, bottom line, Lombardi, which runs about 2 hours, with one intermission, is a play that appeals to people who like football, people who like biographies and documentaries, and to families. If you think you might want to attend, don’t hesitate; I heard that some shows are already selling out.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

———-

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

Lombardi 8_Axle J Burtness, Ken Moretti, Arik Cullen, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Axle Burtness, Ken Moretti, Arik Cullen
Lombardi 7_Axle J Burtness, Ken Moretti, CJ Bergin, Linda S Beringer, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Ale Burtnes, Ken Moretti, CJ Bergin, Linda S Beringer
Lombardi 4_Raymond Goode, Ken Moretti, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Raymond Goode and Ken Moretti
Lombardi 2_Arik Cullen, CJ Bergin, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Arik Cullen and CJ Bergin

 


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