BWW Reviews: OSTC's LOMBARDI Offers a Terrific, Timely Glimpse Into America's Favorite Game
Any play that's worth its salt contains themes, ideas or messages that stand the test of time. They pose relevant questions and provoke dialogue regardless of the present moment in time. Sometimes, the events of the day can make a play's relevance even more immediate and fascinating, taking a good play and helping it become a great one. Such is the case with Ocean State Theatre Company's production of Lombardi.
Premiering on Broadway in 2010, Lombardi is written by Eric Simonson, who based it on the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss. Focusing on one week in 1965, the play explores the life of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to multiple world championships and is to this day considered one of the greatest coaches in the game's history.
From Lombardi's day in the 1960s, fast-forward to today and the current state of the National Football League. Carolina Panthers Head Coach John Fox recently collapsed on a golf course and was taken to a hospital where he received heart surgery. Houston Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak also recently had a medical emergency, as he walked off the field in the middle of a game. He received treatment after suffering a mini-stroke. The Miami Dolphins are in the middle of a hazing/bullying scandal that has consumed the entire league and spread even beyond that. An even bigger scandal, regarding concussions and the long term health of players, threatens to fundamentally change the game forever.
While those events are, of course, never referenced or mentioned in the play, there are echoes of them throughout the script. Players talk about contracts, injuries and short professional careers. Media members try to get interviews with players who refuse to talk or are forbidden from talking to them. And Coach Lombardi puts in endless hours of work, preparing for games, even though it may negatively impact his relationships or his health. The NFL today is different, of course, but not that different, and perhaps the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.
All of that makes OSTC's production even more important and only adds to the many good reasons to see this play. Director Amiee Turner has crafted an entertaining and powerful story of what made Lombardi great but what also made him human. She puts the appropriate focus on his moments of inspirational speeches but she also respects and emphasizes the smaller moments, such as those between Lombardi and his wife, which are just as important, if not more so.
One minor quibble with Turner's direction regards her usually perfect casting. In this case, a coupel of the actors are arguably miscast in their roles as professional football players. They just don't look the part, especially one who plays a Packer player who ran for over a thousand yards and double-digit touchdowns in a recent season. A little willing suspension of disbelief and the fact that the actors are just so likeable make it likely the audience will overlook this issue.
Leading the cast is Robert Ierardi as the titular coach. It's a wonderful, fully committed performance, one that doesn't just rely on lots of yelling and speechifying. Ierardi is a capable actor and handles all the moments of Lombardi's story, from inspirational to sad, pained or angry. His equal is Jennifer Byrne as Lombardi's wife, Marie. Their marriage is at the play's center and it's a fascinating story, more fascinating at times than the tales of the gridiron. Byrne is great as Marie, believably living the frustrations that come along with being the wife of a football coach.
Also great is Joel Kipper as Michael, a reporter who has arrived to interview Lombardi and his players for a magazine article. At first, Kipper seems to be trying too hard, trying to be too earnest. He's got a lot of natural charm, charisma and talent. Once he stops pressing and relies on those natural gifts, he gives an excellent performance. Finally, three Packers players are played by Barthelemy Atsin, Todd Berkich and Thomas Schario. They have a great energy and camaraderie onstage and are a lot of fun to watch.
Unfortunately not fun to watch is the scenic and lighting design by Kenneth J. Martin. The green monstrosity of a set is unappealing to look at and doesn't do much to help tell the story. It's hard to say what it's even supposed to be. That problem is not helped by some strange lighting choices, including oddly patterned lights that don't serve much purpose. Costume designer Brian Horton also makes some odd choices, although, having no idea what really went on back in 1965, I can't say whether or not that's what players actually wore to practice. When players appear in Packers uniforms towards the play's end, the uniforms don't look like the real thing.
Then again, audience members looking for perfect reproductions of great moments on the football field will be disappointed. This isn't that kind of show. It also isn't a play that's all about the Xs and Os. There's only a small amount of focus on the machinations and strategy of Coach Lombardi. The play is much more than that. It's a great story, an important story, about a fascinating, larger-than-life figure and his inner life, his home life, his relationships and his family. It's a story that's also very thought-provoking, especially considering the state of football today. And, most importantly, it's theatrical entertainment of the highest quality.
Lombardi is being presented at the new Ocean State Theatre in Warwick through November 24. For tickets call (401) 921-6800 or visit www.OceanStateTheatre.org.