'Tommy and Me' an encounter between a great Philly sportswriter and an Eagles legend

Photos – local – ae1stage30z-a
Ray Didinger (Simon Canuso Kiley) meets boyhood hero Eagles player Tommy McDonald (Ned Pryce) in the late 1950s in Theatre Exile’s world premiere of “Tommy and Me” by Ray Didinger.

Few things can still make a grown man cry like sports nostalgia.

You see it at Super Bowl parties and  in sports bars, a strange species of sentimentality that can reduce rib-eye-and-Jack Daniels-swilling men’s men into babbling children as they mewl over the home team’s past triumphs.

(Or in the case of Philly fans, as they bewail and bemoan another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.)

Potent and highly contagious, sports nostalgia is a sacred bond, holding fast fans and players while guaranteeing big payoffs for pro teams. And it’s the currency of game-day announcers, sports writers – and playwrights.

The nostalgia was in glorious display Friday night at the opening of Theatre Exile’s return engagement of Tommy and Me, Ray Didinger’s finely honed one-act play about his friendship with Eagles legend Tommy McDonald.

The four-character piece, which had its world premiere last summer, will be performed through Aug. 30 at FringeArts in Old City.

One of Philly’s best-loved and most respected sports writers, Didinger, 70, covered the NFL for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin before a long career at the Daily News and an Emmy-winning stint on sports TV.

The Philly native grew up in the 1950s and 1960s idolizing McDonald, a diminutive wide receiver who led the 1960 Eagles to the NFL championship (as the Super Bowl once was called).

The sportswriter reconnected with McDonald in the 1980s and 1990s, when he led a yearslong campaign to persuade the Pro Football Hall of Fame to induct McDonald. (He finally made it in as part of the class of 1998).

Tommy and Me tells both stories. It tells of how Didinger and his family, die-hard Eagles fans all, spent every summer at Eagles training camp in Hershey — and of how the prepubescent Didinger (Simon Canuso Kiley, a sixth grader at Girard Academic Music Program)  befriended the young Tommy (Ned Pryce, who originated the role last year), carrying his helmet for him as the player walked each morning from his dorm to the practice field.

It tells of the boy’s passion for football, matched as it was by the young player’s equally ardent love for playing and his determination to excel at the game despite his small stature. (He was 5-foot-9 and weighed 170 pounds on a good day.)

We hear of how Ray was famous as a kid for his encyclopedic knowledge of all things NFL and of the hours he spent entertaining the patrons who drank at his grandfather’s bar in Southwest Philly.

Emotionally raw, rough around the edges, and real, these are the play’s best scenes. There’s a great deal of sentiment here, for sure, and a little too much sentimentality, but Didinger’s dialogue beautifully renders the feel of childhood, the sense of immediacy, the impatience, the excitement.

Didinger uses an old trick to move the story along when he stages a contentious confrontation between young Ray and his adult self, an eminently sober journalist who prizes professionalism and objectivity.

What happened to his passion for the game, the boy wonders? Why is it that when he runs into Tommy in the 1980s, he doesn’t remind the long-retired ballplayer of their friendship at Hershey?

Things get a little clunky when the adult Ray begins to dominate the story. Didinger fills this part with as many game and player stats and facts as he did the first half. But while the boy’s mastery of NFL minutiae felt magical, the man’s endless discussions of Tommy’s accomplishments feel forced, even boring.

I feel the play takes a wrong turn when it shifts from a honeydew homage to fandom and to childhood and becomes a piece of autobiographical reportage about Didinger’s Hall of Fame campaign.

It’s certainly true that the sportswriter displayed great commitment to his friend and he accomplished a wonderful feat in bringing the player to the attention of the Hall of Fame. But a detailed chronicle of the campaign’s many ups and downs doesn’t work as theater. It belongs in a newspaper article or a sports memoir.

Tommy and Me connects with the audience when it touches on universal themes. It loses momentum, passion, and immediacy when it becomes mired in the particular.

This becomes clear at the end, when we’re given a rousing depiction of the terrific buffoonery and crazy tomfoolery Tommy achieved at his induction ceremony.

Tommy and Me

Theatre Exile's return engagement runs through Aug. 30 at FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Boulevard.
Tickets: $35-$40.
Information: 215-218-4022. theatreexile.org.