The play, co-authored by Rob Zellers (of the Public's education department) and popular columnist Gene Collier (of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), stars respected Pittsburgh-based actor Tom Atkins in the title role. Ted Pappas, the Public's artistic director, stages the play, which has Rooney musing about his successes and failures as he holes up in his memorabilia-filled office at Three Rivers Stadium in 1976.
The stadium, as locals know, is demolished now, but at the O'Reilly Theatre a tiny corner of it is recreated to serve as a playing area — punctuated with Rooney's actual oaken desk — for more than a mere sports story, said Pappas. It's a story of America.
Previews began Nov. 6, and a sold-out gala opening is Nov. 14. Performances continue to Dec. 14.
The play came to Pappas because of his connection to Zellers, who works in the Public's education office. Co-writers Zellers and Collier asked Pappas' advice on the script, and Pappas became intrigued by it. As new drafts crossed his desk, Pappas knew the play was perfect for Pittsburgh Public.
"It's not a play about football, even though this man was instrumental in founding the NFL, not just this team," Pappas told Playbill On-Line. "It's about an American classic: A story about an entrepreneur, a son of immigrants...the story of a great American city. As they kept giving me drafts it was turning into a bigger story than just the story of one man. Thematically, it turns into a play about a great American city creating this singular man, and the man, in turn, making the city even better." The Chief is attracting a crossover audience as never before, Pappas said. "I feel like the doors have flung open to everyone to attend," he said. "It's been exciting for the traditional theatregoers to see a new play, and sports fans who have never been to a play have come — and come back."
Actor Tom Atkins who was with Pittsburgh Public since its first staging, and who has played theatres around the country, prepped by meeting family members and studying tapes and films of Rooney. Years ago, he also met Rooney. His father, in fact, knew Rooney.
Audiences can expect the cigar, the thick-rimmed glasses, the speech patterns and distinctive gait of the man who brought Super Bowl glory to Pittsburgh.
Rooney family members surprised Pappas at the first preview and were enthusiastic about the staging. The word of mouth has spread like wildfire, Pappas said.
Designers for The Chief are Anne Mundell (scenic and costume), Phil Monat (lighting) and Zach Moore (sound).
Tickets for The Chief range $36-$53. For tickets and further information, call (412) 316-1600 or visit the Public's Box Office at the O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue. Visit are also available at www.ppt.org.
This the first of three world premieres for Pittsburgh Public. In 2004, a new translation of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist plays, as does Naomi Wallace's new play, Things of Dry Hours.