Then is now

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 12, 2007
ppening right now.”
The adaptation was written by Trinity founder Adrian Hall, who had to trim 40 minutes immediately after opening night at the Dallas Theater Center — where he was artistic director, as well as at Trinity — because by 11 pm audience members were walking out en masse from the 3-1/2-hour-plus play.
The original production was more successful in Providence, where it was trimmed further. (The current staging is expected to be 2-1/2 hours, with intermission.) Without criticizing Hall’s version, director Brian McEleney said that several changes have been made. For example, rather than being staged in the cavernous upstairs theater, it is in the intimate downstairs one, with a much smaller cast.
“We have a very different set, an extremely different set, which has helped us a lot to make big, bold theatrical gestures,” McEleney added. In the original staging, he played multiple small roles, from party hack to rabble-rouser.
But perhaps the most significant difference now is in casting Wilson, an African-American, as the populist governor.
“The play is so much about the poor versus the rich, the dispossessed versus the possessed, the voiceless as opposed to the powerful,” McEleney said, talking in the upstairs lobby of Trinity during a rehearsal break. “It starts with a song about the Louisiana flood of 1927. We cannot hear that song anymore in a way that we heard it in 1987.
“I thought it was impossible to talk about those issues — of poverty, of government malfeasance, of class struggle — without talking about race. I just couldn’t do it.”
As well as the irony of casting an African-American as Willie Stark, the decision also universalizes and more broadly humanizes the temptations of power that the politician succumbs to. For his part, Wilson is especially interested in how such politicians respond so often out of what was once called the divine right of kings.
“When you inject the notion of spirit, when you inject that claim into what you do — good God, there’s no boundary!” he said.
Actor Mauro Hantman was also in the discussion around the café table at the theater. He plays Jack Burden, a former newspaper reporter who doesn’t put aside his cynicism when he goes to work as an adviser to Stark. The character, our stand-in as observer of the political sausage-making, is a troubled and complex man, as Hantman pointed out.
“The rehearsal process is always a process of finding out what makes your character human and discovering the levels of humanity,” he began. “To me this process has been about discovering the human flaws that he’s rife with. He’s actually like a grown-up child. He hasn’t dealt with his feelings of resentfulness about his family and his position in the world. He hasn’t come to terms with that. So for me it’s been about discovering the ugly side of him, the out-of-control, petulant — I’m not making him sound like a very good guy, but this story for him is about that stuff and learning about how to be more of an adult, more of a person.”
The three of them have read the novel — although McEleney was glad that some of the cast decided not to and thereby brought a fresh audience perspective to rehearsal.
“The novel creates this world which is rich and full,” Hantman said. “So it’s like having this whole world back there that you can draw from to help flesh out all the stuff that we’re doing.”
“And it also helps us make choices,” McEleney added. “ ‘Would this be Robert Penn Warren’s intention with this scene?’ ”
Whether we’ve read the 1946 novel or not and thereby will have our own opinion on that question, we can rest assured that the matter has been left in trustworthy hands.
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