Still, Bleier thinks that his story (though previously told in his book Fighting Back and its 1980 TV-movie adaptation) is known to many people only in broad strokes, and that younger Pittsburghers don’t know it at all. At age 70, he tells it anew in The Play, a one-man show written by Gene Collier and getting 14 performances at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Interviewed one day before rehearsal, Bleier says The Play was partly inspired by successful one-man stage shows by former athletes like Mike Tyson. Film producer and Steelers part-owner Thomas Tull connected Bleier to Collier, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports columnist who’d co-written The Chief, the Public’s oft-revived hit about legendary Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. A one-night performance of The Play, at Heinz Hall in September 2015, led to a slot at the Public.
It’s a fully produced evening, complete with video projections, each of its three acts set in a different bar: the one in Appleton, Wis., that his father owned and that young Bleier lived over; a ’70s-style Pittsburgh neighborhood bar; and the one in his own home, in Mount Lebanon. The affable Bleier, an experienced motivational speaker, is comfortable before crowds, but stagecraft is new turf; thanks to director Scott Wise, he jokes, he’s becoming fluent in fancy lingo like “blocking” and “downstage.”
The play’s voice is casual, spiked at times with Collier’s distinctive brand of sarcasm. The material ranges from Steelers anecdotes to a somber reflection by Bleier, an advocate for veterans’ issues, on the drawbacks of America’s all-volunteer military. Themes include Bleier’s life-long desire to be a hero (he partly blames 1950s TV Western Shotgun Slade) and ruminations on what he calls “the randomness of life,” whether involving a grenade in a rice paddy or a bizarre play on the football field.
“There’s no reason why things happen, it just happens,” he says. “It’s really how you react to that situation that causes a reason for it.”