Lombardi could easily have turned out as a football hagiography—a particularly apt term for the legendary Green Bay Packers coach who was dubbed "The Pope" by adoring fans and "St. Vincent" by sarcastic reporters. But Eric Simonson's stage adaptation of David Maraniss's biography shows the deep-seated contradictions of a man who ruthlessly bullied and micromanaged his players off the field but gave them autonomy on it, as they ran the Packers' famous "power sweep," a play with myriad real-time options that catapulted the team to a series of national championships.
As the title character in director Charlie Brady's sterling Theatre Raleigh production, David Henderson delivers one of his finest performances yet. His lacerating invective has as much impact as the body checks that famous players Dave Robinson (a vivid Jade Arnold), Jim Taylor (a gruff Dan Callaway), and "Golden Boy" Paul Hornung (a warm, rueful Victor Joel Ortiz) execute in grueling practices. A cub reporter on assignment for Look (a forthright Adam Poole) finds himself on the receiving end of verbal and physical intimidation when his search for the story earns pushback from mistrustful players and a coach unaccustomed to being disobeyed.
Masterful blocking deftly takes us from set designer Chris Bernier's practice field to Lombardi's living room, where his wife, Marie (a nuanced Judy McLane), pulls some strings of her own in her husband's personal and professional relationships. Simonson sanitizes the language of Lombardi's profanity-laden tirades, but if his play gives only a fleeting glimpse of the price Lombardi's family paid in his single-minded regime, it still shows us a man clearly aware of—and haunted and isolated by—the extremity of the demands he places on himself and everyone else in his autocratic world.