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It was great to sit in a numbered theater seat and see a play again, even one centered around football, something about which I know so very, very little. But Tommy and Me is not a sports trivia evening. The widely admired Philadelphia commentator and author Ray Didinger has fashioned a warm-hearted drama filled with reminiscences that looks into his heart—and the hearts of Philly fans.
The play opens in the memorabilia-filled office of Didinger (Matt Pfeiffer), who is nervously reading a document while legendary football star Tommy McDonald (Tom Teti) interrupts and distracts him. Subtitled “a football hero, a boy, and the bond they formed,” Tommy and Me unspools a winning exploration of grit and longing as both men embark on a journey, aided by their former selves: Young Tommy (Frank Nardi Jr. dressed for the game in his #25 green jersey) and Young Ray (Benjamin Snyder).
Didinger and McDonald
Didinger (winner of six Emmys for his NFL films and the author of 12 books) grew up as a young statistics whiz in a football-obsessed family. Every summer, they would trek to Hershey and spend two weeks watching the Eagles in training camp. There, young Ray struck up a fan friendship with McDonald. The famous and famously iconoclastic wide receiver and (like Didinger) Philadelphia native began his career as a star at the University of Oklahoma. Drafted by the Eagles in 1957, he played at Franklin Field until 1964 and helped take the Birds to the 1960 NFL Championship (before it was called the Superbowl).
After his star stint in Philly, McDonald went on to play for other less stellar teams, but his legendary stats continued to mount up. And when his storied career ended, the gridiron champion waited patiently (something for which he was not known in sports circles) to receive his longed-for reward: a berth in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That honor eluded him until Didinger unexpectedly came back into his life.
The lore and the story
Tommy and Me recreates the road to that ultimate honor. The outcome is a matter of sports history, but Didinger keeps his tale taut using both the tools of his sports trade and theatrical conventions. Throughout, the two mature characters carry on dialogues with their younger selves: an impatient Young Ray says, “Sometimes I can’t believe I grew up and became you!”
Filled with the stats and football lore, the play will gladden the heart of any fan. But sports maven Didinger uses his lifelong storytelling gifts to craft an emotional arc that takes the rest of us along on the journey. He skillfully melds his personal experiences into an autobiographical tale with a minimum of ego, while giving an insightful look into the sports world where he’s so comfortably lodged.
This play’s theatrical journey began in 2016, and director Joe Canuso and actors Pfeiffer, Teti, and Nardi Jr. have been with the production from its inception. Canuso wisely (and cleanly) focuses his tight company to smoothly propel the action, guiding them through the playwright’s fields of exposition and statistics on a clear path that never loses the narrative thread. As Didinger, Pfeiffer puts his Barrymore-winning theatrical skills to expert use, creating an insightful, warm, and winning character—no small feat with Didinger watching on. And as McDonald, Teti, who’s graced regional stages to great acclaim, brings this beloved sports hero vividly to life.
A tale well-told
Michael Kiley’s lively sound design, replete with cheering crowds, easily evokes the sporting world. Thom Weaver’s straightforward sets and lights make amply clear the play’s journeys back and forth in time. And the huge wall of screens at the back of the stage features excellent video design by Michael Long, with historic images and delicious period footage on and off the field.
Delaware Theatre Company worked with Didinger to arrange a lineup of talkbacks after most shows that include the playwright, director, and cast, along with regionally starry sports and news personalities like Hall of Fame basketball coach Herb Magee and (the night I attended) Glen Macnow, WIP sports radio host. Upcoming sessions include author and historian William Kashatus and Chris McDonald, and the talks close out with WPVI news anchor Jim Gardner after the October 17 final performance.
As a play, this is not a profound evening of theater. But it’s a tale very well-told indeed, with insights into the business and art of the sports world for both novice and fan. And it’s truly an uplifting story worth settling into a theater seat to experience. Shows like this are especially welcome now, and the audience—almost all of whom stayed for the opening night talkback—clearly and enthusiastically agreed.
What, When, Where
Tommy and Me. By Ray Didinger, directed by Joe Canuso. $29-$65. Through October 17, 2021, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
Patrons are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours before showtime before entering the theater. Following CDC guidelines, everyone inside the building must properly wear masks at all times.
Delaware Theatre Company is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office when ordering tickets.
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