We love irony; the mouse that roars, the boy who slays the giant.
And then we have Vince Lombardi, the boy who is color blind, near-sighted and squat, a boy who studies for the priesthood in a prep school that refuses to have a football team because of the violent nature of the sport.
In short, it would seem unlikely for such a man to have the Super Bowl championship trophy named after him. But such is the Lombardi story, one we never tire of hearing because to one degree or another, we can identify.
One does not have to be a Packers fan or even a football fan in general to like this play. Of course, it might help.
With a voice that “can wake the dead,” as one character proclaims, Vince Lombardi (Bob Deyo) thunders as he lectures us, the audience, as if he really is “the old man” and we his team. His glasses, haircut, and manner of dress add to the verisimilitude.
Giving shape to the plot and moving it along is Mike McCormick (Rich Zeman) a New York reporter sent by Look magazine to capture the essence of the man, to uncover the secret of his success. At first halting and shy, McCormick tries persuasion as a way to get at his subject.
In response, Lombardi treats him like an opponent and sets up blocks: No, he may not interview the players or his wife. No, he will not be interviewed himself, and he does not want him showing up on the field. Tensions build. How will our reporter get his story? He has to grow, which means he has to overcome his naturally reticent personality and stand up to a coach no one else dares to confront.
Will he, and if so how, when Lombardi’s toughest players can’t? When the coach barks an order, no matter how unreasonable it may be, they say, “Yes, sir.” It’s the final and only response allowed.
Those three players, Dave Robinson, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, (ably played by Tony Kikkert, Chris Connelly and Joe Lord) adopt “freedom through discipline” (Lombardi’s credo) only gradually as we watch their initial skepticism yield to absolute fidelity. They grow to respect him in part because they say that he treats everyone the same: “Like dogs.” The team becomes a real team, 11 men with one mind, making split-second decisions as they adopt the play Lombardi invented — “the power sweep.”
So it’s an all-male cast? Thankfully, no. Lombardi’s wife (Marie Vossekuil) plays a key role in that she typifies the role many wives and mothers played until recently.
Added to the pressure of being married to a man who never celebrated a wedding anniversary, she had to deal with his sleepless nights as he obsessed over challenges related to the team. Not surprisingly, therefore, she scarcely appears without a drink in her hand.
Knowing that Vince will chastise her if she says anything he might not approve of, she plays the guarded wife in her conversations with the magazine reporter. On the other hand, despite a culture that disapproves, she stands up to her husband when necessary, an attitude she subtly conveys on stage. As an actress, she deftly finds a middle ground between being too soft on the one hand, and too hard on the other. In other words, as Lombardi’s wife Marie quietly puts up with his telling her to “shut up,” but she does not let him silence her when she wants to be heard.
Like Deyo, Vossekuil speaks in a credible New York accent, both playing characters who were born and raised in New York City.
Much of the action of the play is psychological as the characters reveal who they really are under the surface. Lombardi (Deyo) reveals his dark side. He knows, for example, that his temper gets the better of him too much, that he has not measured up as a parent and husband. He even doubts himself sometimes.
Jim Taylor (Connolly) plots behind his coach’s back, concerns about money plaguing him. Hornung (Lord) likes to drink and party. Robinson (Kikkert) rails against the physical pain of it all, as do the others.
The theme is universal, the plot a biographical retelling of the life of a hero, a flawed hero as all real human beings are.