Stage Review: Weekend run could be the last downs for 'The Chief'

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It isn't easy saying goodbye, especially when you just can't see why a long, successful run has to end. But as Steelers Nation waits for the final word, it's started to accept what seems inevitable.

Tom Atkins channels Art Rooney Sr. in the one-man show "The Chief."
Click photo for larger image.

'The Chief'

Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater at O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.
When: Today 2 and 8 p.m.; Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.
Tickets: $45-$60; 421-316-1600.

Who will take his place?

Whoever could?

No, I don't mean Bill Cowher, but Tom Atkins, whose portrait of the Steelers patriarch, Art Rooney Sr., has become a Pittsburgh Public Theater staple. "The Chief," the one-man play by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier, is back for the fourth year, this time for just one week -- and there are indications that the six performances still to come, through Sunday, will be the last.

A total of 11 weeks and 80-some performances since the November 2003 premiere isn't huge, not stacked up against long local runs like "Forever Plaid," "Nunsense" or Bill Cowher. But some 40,000 people will have seen "The Chief" in that time, enough to make a pretty good crowd at Heinz Field -- except that there wouldn't actually be that many people since so many of the 40,000 have been repeats.

No, what has made "The Chief" a civic icon that seems to have been with us longer than these few years is not the size of the audience but the size of the performance.

Sure, Art Rooney was a titan (if such a self-deprecating jack of many trades can be called a titan), and the life behind the play is a hometown epic. But it is the marriage of Atkins and role that triumphs. With his voice lowered to a rumble, eyes twinkling, cigar cocked and jaw thrust forward, Atkins' Rooney is as powerful, dramatic an image as Cowher's Cowher -- and certainly more consistently successful.

So is this really its last year? Word from the Public says it is, although Tuesday's opening night audience didn't seem to think it should be, welcoming Atkins/Rooney with roars of affection. And in contrast to Cowher, Atkins himself doesn't show any slackening desire. "God, I love playing him," he said after Tuesday's show, and his performance makes that clear with its expansive command of the stage, even greater than I recall from previous years.

Atkins would also like to take "The Chief" on tour. It would make a great TV show. And he'd certainly like to see it made into a video, a project that has been on-again, off-again for several years. Just before Christmas it seemed to be on, taking advantage of this (final?) stage run to do the taping, but now it's apparently off. No one is willing to invest the several hundred thousand dollars needed for a first-class production, even though it ought to be a money-maker -- another example of Pittsburgh's reluctance to capitalize on its own intellectual property.

Well, forget all that. After all, part of the glory of theater is its transience, full of insistent life one moment, then gone, leaving nothing but its effect on the audience. If you haven't yet seen one of Pittsburgh's most distinctive theatrical achievements of the past 25 years, don't bet on its miraculous return -- go now.

What you'll see doesn't depend on Steelers passion, though that certainly adds spice. "The Chief" is mainly a character study and also a bit of a stand-up in which Rooney regales us with tales of his early life on the hardscrabble Irish North Side, living over his father's saloon, brawling as much for enjoyment as pride, getting absolution at St. Peter Church, and then tumbling out into a life filled with baseball, boxing, politics, gambling and the other manly sports.

This is the first time I've reviewed "The Chief." In the past, I've recused myself, since co-author Collier is a Post-Gazette colleague. But it seems appropriate for me finally to have some say, especially if this really is farewell.

The problem facing the playwrights was how to make a play out of a series of anecdotes from a life already so well-known in outline. Where's the drama, the conflict? There really isn't any. The decades of Steelers frustration do help set us up for the show's big finale, the "immaculate reception" that marked the team's final arrival among the elite, but you can hardly call that conflict.

To make this more of a play, you would have had to find and explore some darkness in Rooney's life. There are hints of such things, but they become the stuff of nostalgia, not drama. The mood is celebratory. And it works. It's a character study, set in March 1976, on the eve of a dinner honoring Rooney, so we naturally find him in his office in a reminiscent frame of mind, eager to put off donning his tuxedo by telling us one story after another.

No, "The Chief" may not be drama, but it sure is theater. Atkins takes all the anecdotes and turns them into a mesmerizing encounter with living history, history with personality and panache.

So the playwrights deserve credit for giving him such rich material to work with. And director Ted Pappas has also had a palpable hand in shaping the result. They cannily start the evening with one of Rooney's best rambling stories, full of the Damon Runyonesque characters of bygone Pittsburgh.

One thing leads to another and we're halfway through the 90-minute show with hardly a mention of the Steelers. It's so meandering and also seamless that you may miss the smarts with which the best stories are placed, creating islands of substance amid the curmudgeonly charm.

Atkins is now so at home with the character, the material and the city he loves that he even inserts an occasional extra name in the script, such as sportswriter Jack Sell and Rooney relative Jack McGinley. I suppose the only danger would be if his affection for the role showed up as schmaltz, but he is too fine and disciplined an actor to let that happen.

The audience can feel what fun he's having and returns it. It's a love fest.

Let's hope it doesn't end, continuing at the Public, on tour, on TV or on video, somehow. But if it does end, what a gift it has been.


Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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