In the final scene of Eric Simonson's Lombardi/The Only Thing, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers delivers a speech in which he says: "It takes a special person to love someone who is imperfect." That is also true of Madison Repertory Theatre's production. There is much to love, but it is anything but perfect.
Inspired by When Pride Still Mattered, the revelatory biography of Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss, the play is a curious mix of fact, fable and fantasy. It works best when it stays simple, shining most brightly in its many humorous exchanges and moments of emotional intensity. But too often the script wanders off into drab philosophical territory, and at those times the "special" quality required to love something so imperfect is sorely tested. Fortunately, the excellent cast recovers any fumbles the writer commits.
Simonson has constructed an imaginary conversation Lombardi has in 1965 with four people who made a significant impact on his life. They convene in an airport lounge, where Lombardi (played winningly by Jeff Still) meets the incarnations of St. Ignatius Loyola (Ben Werling, in a delicious scene-stealing performance), West Point football legend Red Blaik (Will Zahrn), Vince's father (John Taylor Phillips), and John F. Kennedy (Michael Huftile).
The five men play cards while being served drinks by a flight attendant (Sara Phillips, who does her best with this superfluous and cringingly obvious character). They discuss life, death and (of course) winning, sometimes in sparkling repartee, sometimes in dreary monologues. As Lombardi confronts his own mortality he achieves insight into his failings as a man and appears to make a commitment to redeeming himself.
The production is technically proficient, with effective minimalist sets (Jack Magaw) and lights (Jaymi Lee Smith). The sound design (Josh Schmidt) is cluttered but atmospheric (Brian Eno's Music For Airports is a sly touch), and Mike Tutaj makes clever use of archival film of the Packers in action. Director Richard Corley draws fine performances from his cast, who save the production. With the inconsistent script, acting may not be everything, but it often is the only thing.