Theatre in the Square's production of the classic political tale All the King's Men begins at a public event. At a hospital dedication ceremony, gaseous elected officials and persnickety academics blather about the lasting influence of (fictional) Louisiana Gov. Willie Stark. "He was a controversial figure," a professor acknowledges as the crowd erupts with hecklers, until arguments erupt over character vs. reputation and "fact" vs. "truth."
When flashbacks depict the real Willie Stark and his inner circle, the scenes take place at once in the original locations and at the dedication ceremony. In his first major appearance in the play, Willie (David Milford) visits the study of Judge Irwin (Tom Thon) late at night. The governor also addresses the crowd, winking to the audience, shaking hands with the ticket holders in the front row, even though he's "really" only addressing one person.
The self-conscious theatrical stunt runs throughout Theatre in the Square's All the King's Men, but it has thematic value. Winning over crowds would come as second nature to a commanding, power-hungry party leader such as Willie, but most of the other characters behave in a similar way. They don't just live their lives; they're debating each other and persuading onlookers, as if seeking the audience's vote. All the King's Men takes place on a stage that's not just for theatrical performing, but for politicking.
Would that all the elements of All the King's Men came together so neatly. Robert Penn Warren adapted his own popular, Pulitzer-winning book for the stage in the late 1950s, and Theatre in the Square's revival, directed by August Staub, hews closer to Warren's classic novel than the recent Sean Penn film. Despite being a thoroughly lionized novelist and poet, Warren proves to be an eccentric playwright, and his script turns out to be a serious drag on the ticket.
Like the novel, the play is narrated by Southern scion Jack Burden (Hugh Adams), a boozy newspaperman turned political hack. The action unfolds with Jack, presumably in his imagination, arguing the meaning of Willie's life with an unnamed professor (Marshall Marden), who emphasizes the facts of history with indifference to the context. It's a remarkably clunky device that evokes the more awkward experiments of Arthur Miller, although at times Marden provides a strange, arresting presence on the stage.
Through Jack's eyes and out of sequence, we see key moments of Willie's rise and fall. He starts as a small-town lawyer and green, idealistic politician, recruited for the governor's race as a stooge to split the rural vote. When meek, teetotaling Willie learns the truth, his rhetoric blazes on the campaign trail as he speaks the truth as one "hick" to others. Willie becomes one of those colorful, larger-than-life leaders who seem increasingly rare in an era of televised, focus-group-tested politics.
As a frequent player at Theatre in the Square, Milford often proves most effective as a comedic actor. In All the King's Men, he seems most comfortable in funny mode, from Willie's painful, early naiveté to his snappy patter and sense of entitlement in the governor's chair. If Milford were playing a small-town lawman, it would be like seeing Don Knotts' Barney Fife evolve into Jackie Gleason's Buford T. Justice. But Milford doesn't quite reconcile the different facets of the role, which play almost like two separate performances. Instead of seeing Willie's serious, conflicted side, we usually get comedic tics, such as the way Willie makes an exaggerated, vaudeville-style gulp whenever he nips from Jack's flask.
In such boozy moments, Milford and Adams convey the point that Willie and Jack like each other, despite their increasingly stormy dynamic. Adams deftly captures Jack's intelligence and inaction. Where Jude Law, in the recent film, merely smoked and brooded moodily, Adams portrays the role more like a Southern Hamlet, envying the men of action while failing to follow the example of the right father figure. The desperation in Adams' eyes and the downcast corners of his mouth suggest a man drowning in his own frustrations. The most enduring quality of All the King's Men may be its vision of politicians using and discarding the people around them, whether to amass their power, feed their appetites or defend their position. (Just ask Scooter Libby.) The play improves on the recent film by defining supporting characters such as Jack's childhood sweetheart, Anne (Elizabeth Wells Berkes), and her brother, Adam (Christopher Ekholm).
But too many roles seem to exist merely to betray or be betrayed, or serve as mouthpieces for Warren's purple prose and bloodless philosophizing. Rather than strive for a more naturalistic texture, Staub's staging goes in the opposite direction, making the characters seem more like abstractions and less like just plain folks. Using the whole playhouse as a performing space has diminishing returns, especially when Willie delivers a speech from the back of the theater.
Keeping the hospital close to the play's center gives it at least one tangible idea. All the King's Men hinges on how far Willie will bend in the name of building the hospital for the greater good, as well as how much Jack will violate his integrity to abet Willie. Though potentially explosive, neither plot comes together as powerfully as it should at Theatre in the Square. It's ironic that the play of All the King's Men, a classic about compromise, should be so compromised itself.
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