Frequent theatregoers may question the motivation behind a play about a famous football coach or athlete. Many sports fans would simply prefer to watch a game live in a stadium or dig into the history of a team or player online or in filmed documentaries. Few playwrights have tried bringing sports to the stage, with varying levels of success. The 1955 musical Damn Yankees scored several TONY awards and nominations; the later Mel Brooks musical All American integrated football and engineering, but received mixed reviews at best. Playwright Eric Simonson seems to have had the most success with sports plays, or at least has produced the most plays about sports. His recent works Bronx Bombers, Magic/Bird, and Lombardi all saw runs on Broadway, Lombardi arguably having the most success. This success is probably attributable to the wide-ranging popularity of its subject matter, NFL Hall of Famer and notable Green Bay Packers Head Coach Vince Lombardi. As a Wisconsin native, Simonson’s passion for the man and the history of the team translates into his second behind-the-scenes look at the great American Icon (his first was the 2007 play The Only Thing).

Lombardi, Theatre Raleigh‘s current production, follows the life and career of Vince Lombardi during the 1965 playoff preparations through the eyes of Look Magazine reporter Michael McCormick. On the heels of a scathing article printed in Esquire, McCormick befriends Lombardi’s wife, Marie, Green Bay greats Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, and up-and-coming talent Dave Robinson in an effort to provide a different perspective on the dogged, seemingly single-minded Packers coach. The success of Theatre Raleigh’s production will surely be attributed to the quality of these relationships conveyed by the cast on stage. With a small cast of eight and a brief script (run time was 90 minutes with no intermission), it seems director Charlie Brady has been able to thoroughly dig into relationships between the characters with his ensemble. The script naturally overlaps and interrupts character dialogue, and besides a few hiccups with opening night pace and hang time between phrases, the cast handled this well. It will be interesting to see how much improved this is once the cast gets into a groove.

David Henderson played the title role with eloquence, finding a variety of levels to play in a role that would be easy to generally wash with a gruff New Jersey accent and shouting. His partner, Judy McLane equally commanded the nuances of Marie Lombardi while maintaining the unsung strength required to support a man and a family that his work at times forsook. Both Henderson and McLane demonstrated near-parental relationships between the Lombardi’s and the sample of Green Bay players portrayed by Jade Arnold, Dan Callaway, and Victor Joel Ortiz. Here again, each actor developed well beyond the surface impressions of their characters. Arnold captured the confidence and enthusiasm of young linebacker Dave Robinson, as well as the youthful desire for a compliment from the coach he admires. Callaway proved there was more than meets the eye with veteran fullback Jim Taylor. His Southern drawl and the commentary of other players, and even the Lombardis, gave the impression that Taylor’s lights are on, but nobody’s home. Taylor’s notable dialogue with Coach Lombardi late in the play established him as a force to be reckoned with on and off the field. Ortiz shouldered the role of “golden boy” Paul Hornung and likewise grounded his companions with the steadiness of an experienced leader. Adam Poole balanced all of these relationships at the center of the action as Michael McCormick. Poole developed McCormick’s diverse relationships as a reporter and guest of the Lombardis, then as a friend of the Lombardis, and “one of the guys” as he got to know the Packers teammates. In the absence of a Lombardi child in the script, the complicated and well-formed relationship Poole developed with Henderson did the most to inform Lombardi’s role as a father.

Similar to the effective work of the actors were the technical designs of the show. Each designer presented simplistic designs with subtle details that solidified the overall concept. Chris Bernier’s scenic design was a straightforward, psuedo-thrust with the audience seated not on three sides of the stage, but on parallel walls of the black box space. Faux brick backdrops were marked with section numbers. Complete with lighting designer Eric Keil’s green LEDs giving the impression of a turf playing space at the top of the show, the set-up was that of spectators seated in a small gridiron. Sound designer Eric Alexander Collins’ design was minimalistic and effective, punctuating Lombardi’s emotional pep talks with empowering instrumentals and establishing the time period naturally with popular tunes as they may have been heard in a bar frequented by Green Bay Packers. The cast was clad in unassuming pieces appropriate to the time and their socio-economic status, and costume designer Sarah McCabe even went so far in detail as to include exchanges for football players’ clean to muddy uniforms mid-scene.

Theatre Raleigh says goodbye to its home base Kennedy Theater for the rest of its season with the close of Lombardi, and what a farewell it is. The space was the perfect backdrop for an intimate look at the Hall of Fame coach’s life on and off the field. Sports and theatre fans alike will find something to smile about with Theatre Raleigh’s comprehensive take on what seems a unique subject for theatre, but that serves up no less artistry or passion than a stage presentation of any genre.

Lombardi continues through Sunday, July 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.