Colleen Hammond | editor-in-chief
Nov. 11, 2021
Phillip Winters has Pittsburgh theater-goers crying “hail to the chief” as he takes on the solo role in the Public Theater’s production of The Chief.
In their first in-person production on the O’Reilly Theater stage since closing for the pandemic, eager Steelers fans and theater-lovers alike flocked to see Winters take on the role of Arthur Rooney.
In this one man show by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier, Winters brings a salt of the earth charm to the larger-than-life Steelers founder and owner.
Over the course of an hour and 20 minutes, audiences are drawn into the cluttered, relic-filled office of Art Rooney late one night in 1976, just before Rooney is set to receive an award from the Knights of Columbus.
Through a series of vignettes and personal anecdotes, Winters’ character takes audiences on an incline ride through Pittsburgh’s storied history, beginning with Rooney’s childhood in the North Side’s First Ward in the 1930s.
While Winter’s performance is a delight to any viewer, it was strikingly obvious through the detailed “old neighborhood” references and intense city history lesson that the target audience for this production is a native-born Pittsburgher over the age of 65.
Although still enjoyable to a younger crowd, as someone who was not raised in the area and is not as familiar with the Pittsburgh of Rooney’s childhood, the show can leave viewers with an outsider taste in their mouth.
Still, despite an audience member’s poor understanding of the central figure, Winters makes Rooney accessible and enjoyable. He takes on the air of a fun, older uncle. His demeanor is warm and welcoming, yet a tad gruff, displaying a kind of manliness in line with the cultural norms of the time.
While the set was somewhat simplistic, scenic designer Britton Wayne Mauk attempted to bring visual interest with the use of a turntable covered in astroturf green, complete with yardline markers. Given that there is only so much director Kyle Haden could do with one man speaking alone on stage, the turntable helped to vary the stage picture just enough to retain the audience’s attention without drawing them out of the story entirely.
Unfortunately, the use of the turntable seemed to be employed as an underestimation of Winters’ storytelling abilities. While the turning helped to move the story along, it felt unnecessary, as Winters was captivating and engaging enough on his own without the additional technical elements.
However, the creative team struck gold with the projection design. The real crown jewel of the stage was the overhead projection created by media designer Sean Byrum Leo.
High above center stage hung an arena-style, circular projection screen. This way, all audience members could see the projections, despite the audience being seated in a three-quarter thrust arrangement. The projection screen showed photos, as Winters held them up in a scrapbook, ensuring everyone could take part in the imagery. He displayed photos of Pittsburgh during the hay-day of steel work and dozens of Rooney’s friends and players who went on to become sports legends. Additionally, the overhead placement harkened back to sports iconography that was at the center of this show.
Zellers and Collier expertly crafted this historical fiction, precisely weaving fact and fiction into one quilted image of Pittsburgh’s past. Brought to life by Winters’ heartfelt and honest portrayal of Rooney, The Chief was an excellent way to kick off the Public’s first season back.
For those who missed this first show back, the Public has a packed in-person season slated for the remainder of the year.
Later this season, the Public will be home to another one person show, this time in the form of a solo musical comedy. From Jan. 26- Feb. 13, Downton Abbey star Lesley Nicol will grace the Public stage in a one woman musical about her life, titled “How The Hell Did I Get Here?”
Student tickets are available through the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s website for $16.50 each.