Ray Didinger’s sweet, affecting play “Tommy and Me,” in its world premiere from Theatre Exile and selling out the house at FringeArts, is as Philadelphian as cheesesteaks.
Didinger, a sportswriter and broadcaster, writes about the way his childhood football hero – the former Eagles receiver Tommy McDonald – treated him kindly when he was a kid-fan, became a news source when Didinger was a sportswriter and then became a friend as well as a major project. Didinger took it on himself to get the overlooked McDonald into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That effort provides the framework for “Tommy and Me,” which begins with a scene that refers obliquely to the 1998 Hall of Fame induction and ends with the event itself. McDonald’s was a different sort of induction, to be sure. Instead of the usual solemn acceptance speech iced with questionable humility, McDonald delivered a jocular version that approached stand-up comedy. He was, the play emphasizes, unpredictable except when he was at work on the field.
The highlight of McDonald’s seven years with the Eagles came on Dec. 26, 1960 at Franklin Field, when he scored a first-half touchdown that turned the game against the Green Bay Packers. The Eagles ended up winning 17-13 in that NFL Championship Game, seven years before those ultimate championship contests would be called the Superbowl.
Although the Hall of Fame induction is the anchor for “Tommy and Me,” the relationship between McDonald and Didinger is the play’s driver – it started for Didinger as a fan, before the two ever met at the Eagles training camp. At about 75 minutes, “Tommy and Me” adroitly covers a lot of territory about the Didinger family’s loyalty to the Eagles, and about McDonald and the team itself. One of the reasons the play works so well is its thorough mix of plot and fact.
Didinger is a WIP host and a Comcast football analyst, the author of 11 books and a former NFL Films producer and before that, a sportswriter for The Inquirer and the Evening Bulletin. He’s now a playwright, too, but essentially, still a journalist. The way Didinger imparts facts in “Tommy and Me,” the play’s characters and developing story win you over, but the interwoven reporter’s briefing on old-time Philly football is a big part of the play’s charm.
“Tommy and Me” doesn’t dive too far below its surface to plumb the story’s role reversal, in which a wide-eyed kid becomes a big force in the life of his idol. Instead, Didinger lays out the tale and lets the audience chew over its ramifications – which character, for instance, is the story’s real hero? (For me, both: One on the field, another at the keyboard.)
Didinger had help smoothing out the script. Joe Canuso, who co-founded Theatre Exile and directs “Tommy and Me,” brought in the busy Philadelphia-based playwright Bruce Graham as script consultant, which makes sense for a sports-inspired play. Canuso produces Graham’s “The Philly Fan,” a funny show about how we slog through sports seasons of mostly psychic foreplay – an attractive theme that’s taken the one-man comedy to stages across the region.
A reported result of the consultation with Graham was the decision to have two versions of both characters – a young version and a current one – and it works perfectly. The current Didinger is played earnestly by Theatre Exile’s associate artistic director, Matt Pfeiffer, and the current McDonald is the smooth, veteran local actor Tom Teti; the younger McDonald is dashing Ned Pryce.
The younger Didinger in the play often speaks with the older one, a nice depiction of the way we call up our past when dealing with the present. Simon Kiley, a sixth-grader, plays young Didinger and he’s fully endearing but not entirely understandable, a problem his grandfather – the director – contributes to by sometimes turning him to one side or the other in the staging. (I saw the play from the very back of the theater, but still…)
Kiley’s dad, Michael, is the show’s sound designer, and wrote mood-setting original music for the show, which plays out on Thom Weaver’s tidy private-study set with a background for video and photo projections. You get to see the play’s characters to the fore and the real-life ones to the rear, giving the production even more yardage.
“Tommy and Me,” produced by Theatre Exile, runs through August 14 at FringeArts, Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.