Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr. is an icon in the city of Pittsburgh and among pro football historians. He was a determined, forthright, astute businessman who is remembered fondly by many. His roots to the city and his manner of remembering his humble beginnings forged a connection of mutual respect with the residents of this Steel City. When Rob Zellers and Gene Collier decided to write a one man play about "The Chief," they knew they had to show all sides of the man. As Rooney's grandson Jim told the authors, Rooney Sr. "wasn't always a saint." What appears on the stage of the Public Theater is an affectionate and respectful view of an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things.
From his childhood on the Northside where he swam in the Allegheny River just offshore of the future location of Three Rivers Satdium, though a period as a young boxer, on to a long career developing the legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rooney is shown to be a very strong and religious family man. He worked a "real job" one day in his life - at a steel mill where he quickly developed a respect for the incredibly hard working steelworkers, but learned it wasn't for him. Rooney probably learned a thing or two from the local politicians he worked for, as well as from his father who owned a tavern. The Chief was uncanny at betting on horses, winning an incredible $380,000 during one betting spree in 1937. He had already bought the Steelers by then, but those winnings helped him hold onto the team through "the bad years" - four decades of disappointing football seasons. When the team finally came together, due to the foundation Rooney had set, the talents of coach Chuck Noll plus the results of a few brilliant drafts, Rooney was proud, but never let the newfound fame of the team go to his head.
The Chief takes place in 1976 in an office at Three Rivers Stadium, as Rooney (Tom Atkins) prepares for an event honoring him at the Knights of Columbus. Speaking openly to the audience, he reflects on his life and career, showing his personality and morals by the stories he tells and the beliefs he describes. Atkins presents a fine portrayal of the gruff but sentimental Rooney, who at the time would have been 75. Cigar smoking and speaking from the heart, Atkins' Rooney recalls times, places, and people familiar to the audience. Mostly a story of Rooney's life and "what made the man," The Chief also gives a snapshot of the people and circumstance which allowed the Steelers to leave behind the SOS ("same old Steelers" is the clean translation) years.
For anyone with a fondness for Pittsburgh or the Steelers, this is a rich, inspirational piece of Americana. For natives of the 'burgh and diehard Steelers fans, it is a near religious experience. To top it off, the famous "immaculate reception," a fluke catch in a 1972 playoff game with the Oakland Raiders which catapulted the Steelers into their dynasty years, is shown on film. If you didn't wear your black and gold jersey into the theater (and some people did), by this time you wish you had.
The set by Anne Mundell is perfection and reflects Rooney's personality. It is a recreation of the owner's office, with all the accoutrements you would expect: wooden desk, many pictures, plaques, a rotary phone, etc. Behind the back office wall is an attractive night skyline of the city with the ubiquitous bridge. Lighting and sound are quite good. Direction by Ted Pappas allows for all audience members around the thrust stage to share in the intimate performance. Unfortunately, at the performance reviewed, Atkins came into trouble in the middle of the play, appearing to have lost his place completely - a devastating occurence in a one man piece. He did recover, and knowing Atkins' superb abilities, I would venture a guess that subsequent audiences were able to see him at the top of his form through the entire play.
Pittsburgh Public Theater presents The Chief at the O'Reilly Theater through December 14. For ticket and performance information, please call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.
The Chief, written by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier. Directed by Ted Pappas. Scenic & Costume Designer Anne Mundell. Lighting Designer Phil Monat. Sound Designer Zach Noel.