By John Lyle Belden
Whenever we hear or see Vincent Lombardi in a picture or old game film, or read or hear one of his numerous quotes, he seems larger than life, football’s Zeus or Apollo. But he was a man – and a devoted Catholic, so claiming no godhood – and as we see his very human aspects in “Lombardi,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana, we can’t help but respect him even more.
The Broadway play by Eric Simonson, from the book “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, captures a week in the Green Bay Packers’ 1965 season. Look magazine sends reporter Michael McCormick (played by Adam LaSalle) to Wisconsin to write a profile on the coach, who never had a losing season in the NFL (up to that point, or thereafter). Aside from Lombardi (Don Farrell) and his wife Marie (Judy Fitzgerald), we meet Packers greats Dave Robinson (Joel Ashur), Paul Hornung (Christian Condra) and Jim Taylor (Mat Leonard), who all refuse – at first – to speak to the reporter.
Without any special makeup tricks, perhaps through force of will, Farrell becomes Lombardi – in face, stance, voice, and attitude. When he speaks, always at or above a shout, all must listen. His style as coach and general manager was uncompromising, but in his subtle, paternal way his compassion for both the game and its players comes through. And as he would bellow at his wife, Fitzgerald’s Marie would always give as good as she got, with a knowing grin on her face and drink in her hand. Their scenes include flashbacks, showing how they made their way to Green Bay (including the road atlas).
McCormick is an able narrator; being a character from the non-football world aids his role as audience proxy. Ashur, Condra and Leonard also give strong performances, worthy of working under a legendary coach.
Jane Unger, who last gave us another bit of history in “Alabama Story,” directs. Efficient stage design by P. Bernard Killian seems to expand the limited space of the Studio Theater, hinting at grand scale within an intimate setting.
An inspiring look at an American icon, “Lombardi” runs through Nov. 21 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Following the Sunday, Nov. 7, performance, former Purdue star and Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann will join the cast for a talkback.