So I am not much of a sports fan. I grew up in Wisconsin though, so Green Bay Packers football is as much a part of my history as beer, cheese, and beer cheese.
I do enjoy live theater though, so I found myself in the audience of “Lombardi” presented by the Racine Theater Guild on its opening night. The titular character Vince Lombardi is perhaps the most iconic sports figure around these parts. Even if you don’t follow football, Lombardi is a bigger than life presence.
Quotes attributed to him have become part of the lexicon of our times, and his contribution to the sport will never be forgotten. (When a team wins the Super Bowl, they are not presented with the Mike Ditka trophy!)
“Lombardi” tells the story of this bigger than life man and adds nuance and humanity to the legend by portraying his relationships with his team, his wife, his family and his legacy. The heart and determination that drove Lombardi make for entertaining theater and also thought provoking history.
The audience for this opening night gala was outfitted in far more Green Bay Packer jerseys than are usual for an opening night at the theater. From the whistle blow which opened the show through the standing ovation at the end, the audience was caught up in a story as old as time, but new and surprising as well.
While I didn’t get all of the jokes as someone who doesn’t follow “the sportsing”, (In particular, a line about blitzing got a huge laugh!) I was delighted to relate to the human aspects of this Wisconsin history lesson.
The exceptional performance by the cast, in particular Rich Smith as Lombardi, made the evening memorable and full of warmth and pathos. Seeing the back story of this “tough guy” coach and being privy to the struggles and roadblocks that plagued him, made me cognizant that being a sports fan is so much more than watching a simple game.
Themes explored in the show included early racism in the NFL, questions about player salaries and the possibility of injury, and the overwhelming power of feeling a part of a team.
I learned a lot. First I learned that a football is the one with the two pointy ends. (I kid!) I learned how much of football has to do with image, and how much ego and pride it takes to succeed at that level. I learned about the uncertainty that comes with making your living in such a competitive field. I also learned today that when you look for an image of “football”, a lot of pictures of soccer players pop up.
And I laughed. Along with the rest of the audience, I was delighted by the story and by the actors who told it. Melissa Hughes Ernest as Marie Lombardi, the coach’s long suffering wife, served as the soul of the piece. It is through her eyes and point of view that we see Lombardi in all of his complex and nuanced humanity.
I am tickled that this show will bring folks to the theater who might normally not be inclined to attend (i.e. the number of Packers jerseys in the house!) and I commend the Racine Theater Guild for their choice and execution of this lovely piece.
Whether you love sports, or you love theater, “Lombardi” should be on your To Do List!