Ernst captures the essence of ‘Lombardi’ at the Rep

Off the field, Packers Paul Hornung (Reese Madigan), Jim Taylor (Arthur Lazalde) and Dave Robinson (Cameron Knight) get fired up about their coach. Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow.

Last year, the Green Bay Packers brought the Lombardi Trophy home to Lambeau Field. This fall, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater brings the legendary coach Vince Lombardi home to Wisconsin in “Lombardi.”

Although the National Football League’s Super Bowl trophy is named for him, very few know the story of Lombardi the man — his inspirations, passions, ability to drive people to achieve and his quick, booming temper. This is the story “Lombardi” tells.

The Rep’s post-Broadway Wisconsin premiere, recently extended through Nov. 20, is based on the book “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi” by David Maraniss. The play is written by Academy Award-winner and Wisconsin native Eric Simonson.

In “Lombardi,” Look Magazine reporter Michael McCormick, played by the Rep’s Resident Acting Company member Gerard Neugent, travels to Green Bay to write an article about the legendary Packers coach. Hoping for some good press coverage, Vince and Marie Lombardi invite Michael to stay with them for the week, observe practices and talk to members of the team.

Throughout his stay, Michael talks to and observes Marie along with three of Lombardi’s legendary players: Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Dave Robinson. He learns about Lombardi’s years as a banker, his religious beliefs and family life, his ascension to the Packers head coaching job, his relationship with his players, his signature “power sweep” play and, of course, his boisterously powerful voice.

Angela Iannone, who plays Marie Lombardi, effortlessly manages to recreate the loud-mouthed, tough-loving, Brooklyn-accented wife of a football-obsessed coach. Clearly an audience favorite, Iannone has a wit about her and a sparkle in her eye that exposes exactly who Marie must have been: a woman everyone loved.  Marie, portrayed as the refreshing relief from Lombardi’s hot temper, guides Michael on his quest for a well-written and carefully researched article.

Acting as somewhat of a narrative character, Neugent pushes the play’s action forward, which  means the story jumps back and forth in time with flashbacks of the Lombardis’ former years. Two large projector screens help with this process, filling the background of the Quadracci Pavilion stage and functioning as partial sets to easily switch between past and present, practice fields and Lambeau locker rooms.

Neugent plays the young, observing journalist well, stepping out of the spotlight often in order to allow the unfolding of the story and stepping back in to narrate his character’s writing process for the audience. By the end of the week, his character is, fittingly, changed and inspired by the coach in a dramatic way — a process Neugent very gracefully captures.

Lombardi’s legendary players Hornung, Taylor and Robinson are recreated by Reese Madigan, Arthur Lazalde and Cameron Knight, respectively. Besides their somewhat lankier-than-a-football-player physical stature, these three actors precisely portray the camaraderie, dedication and respect which defined their Packer counterparts. Especially Lazalde, whose character’s tight relationship with Lombardi and concern for the team is revealed most extensively, shows the genuine sincerity and personality underneath the helmet of a football player.

The shining gem of the production, however, is none other than the Rep’s Resident Acting Company member Lee E. Ernst as the iconic Vince Lombardi. He truly becomes one in his role, nailing every detail of Lombardi’s mannerisms, stature, jaw line, accent and, most obviously, his voice — all without a slip.

Coach Lombardi (Lee E. Ernst) fires up his team. Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow.

Lombardi’s personality is mercurial and tough, yet inspiring. To make the audience feel as if they knew the man in a 120-minute period on stage is truly a feat. Ernst captivatingly portrays this essence from scene one.

By the end of Ernst’s performance, it is obvious why Lombardi remains such a powerful, quotable legend.

With the exception of Neugent (who plays the only fictional character in the play), every actor in this production is presented with the task not only to act out a character, but also to resurrect the personalities of real people — people truly beloved in the state of Wisconsin. The cast easily accomplishes this feat with heartwarming fervor, leaving the audience smiling and ready to watch some football.

Packer paraphernalia props aside, the Rep’s production of “Lombardi” captures the spirit of a winning team, instilled by a restlessly devoted coach. He gave people the power and inspiration to do things they never dreamed possible, he gave the Packers of the 1960’s the power to bring home victory and he gave the Packers of today a trophy to rightfully call their own.