By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 07, 2011 at 1:01 PM

An interesting parallel exists in the Milwaukee Rep production of "Lombardi" that opens Oct. 14 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

Eric Simonson's biographical drama examines the legendary Packers coach who instilled lofty standards of performance and professionalism in the players he taught, coached and mentored. He was all about pride and discipline.

The Rep production of "Lombardi" is being directed by ex-Milwaukeean Sanford Robbins, who has run one of the premier acting training programs in the country, first at UWM and for the last 22 years at the University of Delaware. He is known for his demanding expectations, no-nonsense attitude and continuing professional relationships with former students.

One of those past students, Lee Ernst, is being coached – I mean directed – by Robbins in "Lombardi." The Rep favorite is playing the venerated Vince.

Many Robbins-trained actors are eager to work with him years after they complete his program and start their careers, and he reciprocates the enthusiasm. Since Ernst graduated in 1992, his old teacher has directed him in "True West" and "Cyrano de Bergerac" at the Rep.

The circumstance of teacher and student periodically working together through the decades of their careers is artistically interesting, and I sat down with Robbins and Ernst before a rehearsal last week to discuss it with them.

"Sandy (Robbins) is always the boss, always the mentor," Ernst said. "Our relationship in that paradigm has been terrific. He's cultivated my esthetic and been one of the most powerful influences in my career.

"We're now side by side, pulling the wagon," the actor continued. "Sandy gives great freedom to his actors. He doesn't do theater, he is theater. It is his life.

"That's what I am, too. I'm consumed by it, even in my dreams."

Robbins said "Lombardi" is a difficult play to mount. "There is a great scope and theatricality in the piece, and it is important there be a good fit of sensibilities. Lee and I have a good track record.

"I trust him completely. I have no concern if Lee is playing the part. I know it will work out.

"Lee and I share a taste about great theater. It's a theatrically bold taste that always seeks the truth. He has a great sense of the whole, and he collaborates on the entire production, not just his role."

Robbins added that Ernst is typically attracted to the values of the play that make it worth staging.

Do the men sometimes disagree in rehearsals? Absolutely.

"I love that we can wrestle with each other," the actor said, adding that they eventually find common ground. "We both hear a click," Ernst said. "It goes plunk," was Robbins' description.

"Lombardi" is challenging because so many persons remember the late Vince Lombardi, and his persona is inflated to biblical proportions in the Cheesehead state.

"Daunting? Yes, of course," Ernst said. "I knew my first job was to get past that. We are doing a play, telling a story. The job of the actor is to evoke a character, not be him."

Robbins added, "This is not a historical re-enactment. It is a play. It is not a documentary. It is not an impersonation."

That having been said, Ernst is doing everything he can to look and sound like Lombardi. The actor is the same height, 5'8", as the coach was, and Ernst is 25 pounds heavier than when he played the emcee in "Cabaret" exactly a year ago. Padding will give him Lombardi's block of granite shape.

The coach's voice was in Ernst's natural range, and the Rep veteran went to great lengths to find glasses that match Lombardi's. Most impressively, Ernst will be wearing a dental appliance that will give him the legend's toothy grin, with the familiar center gap.

"There are certain things you cannot violate," Robbins said in explaining Ernst's efforts to resemble Lombardi. "If you are playing Santa Claus, you better not be thin and wearing a gray suit."

This is the second Vince Lombardi drama written by southeast Wisconsin native Simonson, and both works have used the esteemed David Maraniss biography of the coach, "When Pride Still Mattered," as their primary source. The first play, titled "Lombardi: The Only Thing," was commissioned by the now defunct Madison Repertory Theatre and premiered in 2007. A slightly altered version was subsequently staged by Next Act Theatre.

Only a single five-minute scene from the initial play was incorporated into the second work, which had a seven month run on Broadway. This is the first production of "Lombardi" since its Broadway closing May 22.

The Rep's Nov. 10 performance will be a benefit for the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation. It will include a pre-show conversation among Lombardi-era players Bart Starr, Boyd Dowler, Forrest Gregg, Dave Robinson, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer, Jim Grabowski and Zeke Bratkowski. A separate ticket post-performance reception will give audience members the opportunity to mingle with the retired Packers and the play's cast.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.