Have you ever had two great friends who were very different from each other and never met, but you thought that if they ever did, they would be great together?
Theater, meet football. Football, say hello to theater.
Thanks, Theatre Exile, for bringing these two pals — no, passions — of mine together in sportswriter Ray Didinger's autobiographical world premiere Tommy and Me. There are very few plays about football, and football fans and theatergoers normally live in separate worlds. Fortunately, director Joe Canuso and script consultant Bruce Graham know both audiences well. (Graham also penned Theatre Exile's oft-revived one-man show The Philly Fan, which likewise bridges the gulf between theater and sports.)
Tommy and Me neatly chronicles Didinger's friendship with Philadelphia Eagles star wide receiver Tommy McDonald, who played 1957 to 1964 and caught the winning touchdown in 1960’s NFL championship game. Matt Pfeiffer plays the easygoing, self-effacing reporter (who, judging from my years of listening to him analyze football on Sports Radio WIP, captures his personality perfectly). Tom Teti is the mature — if that's the word for someone so perpetually boyish — retirement-age McDonald.
Two stories, two sets of characters
Their friendship actually began when young Ray attended Eagles games at Franklin Field and vacationed at their Hershey, Pennsylvania training camp. Simon Kiley plays that boy, a child with encyclopedic football knowledge who often argues amusingly with his adult self. Ned Pryce is brash young Tommy, who bonds with the wide-eyed kid.
Didinger's script bounces between the late 1950s and 40 years later, when Didinger championed McDonald's nomination to the National Football League Hall of Fame. What seems at first like an extended reminiscence actually builds suspense, often humorously.
While some remarks seem like gifts to the Eagles faithful packing the house (who enjoyed booing Terrell Owens and Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, and cheering at Tommy's "I hate the Cowboys"), much of the humor comes naturally from the mix of Tommy's outspoken enthusiasm and Ray's humble reticence, and a lovely story about childhood heroes and love of the game brings an unexpected tear to the eye.
A heartfelt touchdown
Canuso's production not only celebrates the friendship between these two men through unabashedly sentimental and sincere performances, but also aids the less football-savvy viewer (and rewards fans) with footage and photos of McDonald's playing days, especially that exciting championship game (video and projection design by Michael Long). The video is capped by the tape of McDonald's Hall of Fame acceptance speech, which is every bit as outlandish as Didinger's script claims. Thom Weaver's economical set and lighting, and Katherine Fritz's period costumes, likewise complement the play's simplicity.
Perfectly timed — the Eagles’s first preseason game is Thursday night — this run of Tommy and Me is already sold out and must end August 13 due to the FringeArts space's other commitments. If you can, get on a waiting list, but expect a revival soon, as both my good friends, theater and football, combine to make this play, like its subject, a local legend.
What, When, Where
Tommy and Me. By Ray Didinger, Joe Canuso directed. Through August 14, 2016 at FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.