I moved to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2007. This means, as far as I can tell, that I have had six opportunities before now to see a production of The Chief, the one-man show about Steelers’ owner Art Rooney written by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier. At least two of those opportunities came with invitations to write about the show on this very blog; I declined both, out of a suspicion that – as someone who is neither native Pittsburgher nor football follower, let alone Steelers fan (hold your ire, please!) – I would likely not be the right audience for the experience on offer. But I wasn’t about to miss the re-opening of the Pittsburgh Public Theater after the pandemic shutdown, so when the opening night announcement landed in my inbox, I figured it was time to say “yes.”
Alas, I’m here to report that my instinct was correct. The Chief is as good as anything you’ll get in the category of hagiographic tributes to beloved local heroes, and in his first outing in the role of “the chief” actor Philip Winters is convincing and charismatic. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing you are going to like, and Winters had the opening night audience, many of whom were decked out in black and gold, solidly in the palm of his hand as he walked us through Rooney’s journey from impoverished Irish street fighter to wealthy, powerful owner of a Super Bowl-winning NFL team. That I wasn’t similarly won over has a lot to do with my indifference both to sports and to self-congratulatory stories about the good ole’ days when white men settled disputes with fisticuffs, won fortunes through deceptive practices at the racetrack, regarded their wives as saints and heaped disdain on the rest of the female sex, and accumulated power in and through the old boys’ network. But I appreciated, nonetheless, the insight that Zellers and Collier’s script provides both into the cultural history of Pittsburgh and the rabid fandom of Steeler Nation: for example, I had no idea that before Pittsburgh became a football town in the mid 70s, it was a place where the home team had been roundly reviled for almost four decades. And now, thanks to this show, I actually know what people are talking about when they say the words “immaculate reception.”
If you’ve seen The Chief before – and it was clear that many in the audience had, perhaps multiple times! – you will be pleased to learn that this “all new” production has some fancy tricks up its sleeve. Britton Wayne Mauk’s scenic design places a pared-down version of Rooney’s 1976 office on a turntable, with audience on all four sides; the floor, which looks to be part astroturf, has faint yard lines painted on it, while above is a kind of jumbotron ring on which media designer Sean Byrum Leo projects images of the people, places, and events that Rooney refers to throughout the monologue. The effect is to give the impression that we are in both his office and a sports stadium at the same time. This doesn’t fully solve the problem of establishing who we, as audience, are to Rooney as he speaks, but it does create both intimacy for the actor and a sense of community among the audience. Director Kyle Haden mainly uses the turntable to give a four-part structure to the long monologue (and to provide moments for Winters to get a sip of water); the lighting and sound design (Minjoo Kim and Germán Martínez) animate those transitions and also help underscore the story visually and sonically. Both the office set and Alethia R. Moore-Del Monaco’s costumes firmly ground the play’s action in 1976, while the projections, many of which are styled to look like they are being “painted” on the screen, offer a more modern vibe to the proceedings.
Newly packaged, The Chief still punches all the right crowd-pleasing buttons for its intended Steeler-loving audience. The show runs through November 7 at the O’Reilly Theater.