This is a first for me – and it may be an “only” as well.
I figured I’d get the disclaimer out of the way right off the bat before diving into the review – never have I been asked to offer a review of a play in which I not only knew the author, but also the characters in the show.
No, not the actors. The characters!
A little context would be good here, eh?
So, I was asked to head over to Fringe Arts over the weekend to see the Theatre Exile Production of Tommy and Me by noted Philadelphia sports personality Ray Didinger.
This is the fourth consecutive summer the show has had a run in the Philadelphia area, three times at Fringe Arts and once out at Media Theatre in Delaware County.
I first saw the show in 2016, and went to see it not as a critic, but as a colleague of Didinger. I first met Ray when I was a young radio producer at WIP radio, then on the AM dial on 610, when Ray would co-host shows on the weekends when he wasn’t working at NFL Films.
I always read Ray as a kid growing up. He was one of my favorite sportswriters when he worked for the Philadelphia Daily News, so it was a cool thing to actually get to work with him. Those Saturday morning shows with Ray and former Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Don McKee at a car dealership near the airport were always fun, eventful, and filled with lots of great characters and even better stories.
It was then that I learned that not only could Ray write a good story, he could also tell a good story.
But I never thought he could write a play.
It was not something that was often discussed in the oft-macho world of sports – even if we were the creative conscience of the sports world, painting pictures with words and dictating public opinion with our on-air takes.
As such, I never told Ray then about my love of the stage, that I was a theatre major in college, that I still had an ambition to make good theatre even as I was carving out a career in sports.
I tell you all this because it’s a very similar story to the one he tells in Tommy and Me, just with himself as the lead character in the play and with Tommy McDonald, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960s as the antagonist.
Speaking of McDonald, I also had the opportunity to meet him too back in my WIP days – thanks to Ray.
The story of Tommy and Me, centers around McDonald finally getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame 30 years after his career had ended, and Ray’s push to get him there.
As part of that, Ray brought Tommy to the radio studio a couple times to be on the morning show, which I sometimes produced, and McDonald was a walking talking smiley emoji. He lit up the room every time I saw him. He was a bundle of good energy and always had you smiling and laughing right along with him.
I never saw McDonald play a football game, but I knew I would have been a big fan.
And seeing this production for a second time, I can tell you that the actor playing McDonald, Tom Teti, captured the spirit and energy of McDonald so incredibly well. Teti doesn’t sit still the entire show. He’s got McDonald’s nervous energy down to a science. From the minute we first see him in Ray’s office talking to Ray about his plans for the Hall of Fame, to the flash backs of Ray interviewing him, right up to the inauguration celebration, Teti becomes McDonald. It’s a joy to watch.
Meanwhile, Matt Pfeiffer does something even more transcending. He brings to life someone I actually know well, on stage and does it with great talent. Many actors often try to be a caricature of their character if that person existed in real life. Pfeiffer did no such thing. You can tell he did his homework. You can tell he spent time talking to Ray and understanding Ray and actually becoming Ray. It’s something to behold for someone who knows Ray on a personal level.
However, it was Simon Kiley who really stood out for me. That’s because he played Young Ray. Kiley, the grandson of director Joe Canuso, has played Young Ray since the original staged reading of Tommy and Me back in 2015. Young Ray is written as a 10-year-old, and Kiley isn’t pulling off that age anymore. He’s now a high school student, but still displays the wonderment and excitement of an early teenage boy who idolizes athletes as heroes and can comprehend a little more about the nuance of sports and why it has such an intense emotional impact on people, and sometimes, like here in Philadelphia, an entire city.
And it worked perfectly.
Kiley wasn’t just playing a teenage Ray Didinger. No, Kiley was playing me. And every other young sports fan who grew up here in Philadelphia cheering for their favorite athletes as if the outcome of these games were life or death.
Some of my favorite interactions are between Kiley and Pfeiffer, as a visualization of those internal conversations we all have with the 12-year-old that lives inside each one of us. That’s where Ray’s writing really comes through beautifully.
Sure, there are enough football references and statistics to make the most nostalgic football fan smile, but there is a real heart to the relationship that Ray has with himself and with McDonald that is brought out in the words Didinger has composed in this play.
And I use the word “composed” for a reason, because listening to this dialogue is symphonic. At least for me. It was like many a conversation I had in my formative years and it was a joy to see it played out on stage.
There’s a reason Ray has since joined McDonald in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a writer – because his grasp of the English language is beautiful.
But this play also resonates for those who are not as well-versed in the sports discussions that often go on between a sportswriter and an athlete. I intentionally brought someone along with me who knew absolutely nothing about football, the Philadelphia Eagles and who never heard of either Ray Didinger or Tommy McDonald.
I considered it a real social experiment – to see if there was a different perspective from someone without as closely-knit affiliation with the characters of the show as I had.
And she was as equally fascinated with the relationships as I had indicated. She took it one further though and pointed out the touching scene between Young Ray and Young Tommy, played perfectly by Frank Nardi, Jr., the only member of the cast that was not part of the original staged reading or original run of the production. She indicated how Nardi made McDonald seem so normal and so human. She indicated that he added depth to McDonald to show that he was more than just a star athlete. That he was a person, with feelings – and with a heart.
She’s not wrong, and while Nardi deserves credit for his portrayal, I direct that praise to Canuso for his direction. Canuso grew up here. He remembers those Eagles of the 1960s. He remembers cheering on McDonald as a kid. He recognizes the love affair that is the Philadelphia Eagles and the fans of this city and that this has been going on for generations.
And, with that recognition, he knows that Didinger’s words are a valentine to that relationship, simply delivered in a personal way.
It’s what makes this show a must see.
The technical elements are all on point. Thom Weaver’s set is simple yet effective. He also designed the lights, and I thought his use of white light every time we flashed back to Rays childhood or Young Tommy’s appearances was a nice transition from the warmth of Ray’s office or Tommy’s living room.
The costumes were perfect. Katherine Fritz was meticulous getting the 1960 Eagles uniform correct from top to bottom, getting just the right gold for Tommy’s Hall of Fame jacket, and finding a nice balance of colors to depict the vibrance of youth in Young Ray and the comforting earth tones that adequately marked the personalities of Ray and Tommy.
Michael Kiley’s sound design and original music for the show were noticeably appropriate and made for a pleasurable experience, Meanwhile, Michael Long’s video and projection designs deftly switched from football footage, to home décor to a fun video that wrapped up the show post-curtain call.
In closing, it’s worth noting that a theme that stretches throughout this show is Ray’s reluctance to tell Tommy when they are adults about their brief encounters when Ray was a kid and Tommy was a player and what the consequence of doing so might be.
It has made me wonder, how different things would have been for me if I shared my love for the theatre with others in the world of sports decades ago.
And when a play hits home like that, you know it’s done its job. Here’s hoping it will do the same for you.
Tommy and Me is playing at Fringe Arts through August 25. Special guest hosts from the world of Philadelphia Sports and Media will host a discussion with the Cast and Crew and playwright Ray Didinger after each performance. Tickets are $40. Tickets available at http://www.theatreexile.org