The Media Theatre was full of Eagles jerseys on opening night, as the cheering audience watched Tommy and Me, doing a summer run through Aug. 26. Written by longtime Philadelphia sportswriter and radio personality Ray Didinger, it is based on the playwright's real-life relationship with former Eagles star Tommy McDonald, which began in Didinger's childhood and has continued for 60 years.
The dramatic issue in this 75-minute drama is Didinger's campaign to get the football great inducted into the Hall of Fame. (I know how that turned out, but mum's the word.). More poignant are the separate yet intertwining struggles of Didinger and McDonald to stay true to their innermost natures.
The play shifts back and forth in time. Young Simon Canuso Kiley is winning as the child version of Ray, who radiates joy in the presence of football star Tommy (Frank Nardi Jr.), then pops up as a nagging memory in adult Ray (Matt Pfeiffer). The amusing spat between Ray and his child alter ego captures the loss of emotional honesty we go through in "growing up." (Child Ray: "I can't believe I grew up to be you.")
Tom Teti is compelling as aged Tommy McDonald, comically fidgeting around, the perfect image of the retired star athlete who no longer has a central role. Just as Ray must reunite with his younger self, Tommy struggles to stay true to the qualities that made him so vital on the football field.
Tommy and Me is now in its third production; this one is billed as "Theatre Exile's Tommy and Me, presented by the Media Theatre." Director Joe Caruso has been involved from the start, and the show continues to evolve. For this already intimate play, director Joe Caruso makes the Media stage smaller, sectioning off the central area to be Didinger's sports reporter office. A large video screen covers the entire rear wall, and we are treated to film footage from McDonald's sports career, dramatic and full of surprises.
While Tommy holds its own as a feel-good story, it is hard to visualize it playing as effectively outside metropolitan Philadelphia. The packed house immediately howled at Eagles football jokes (the show is full of them). The audience was so responsive it was a little like being at Lincoln Field.
Throughout its run, each show will have an audience talkback session featuring a Philadelphia sports celebrity (you can find the lineup on the Media Theatre website), with Didinger and cast onstage. Dick Vermeil, former Eagles' head couch, was the headliner on opening night, and the talkback was as warm and amusing as the play.