Stark contrasts

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 25, 2007
use every trick in the playbook to keep us enthralled. Done. Wearing his director hat and drawing from his considerable acting skill, McEleney keeps things flowing smoothly and briskly. This is a memory play, recounting the political career of Jack Burden (Mauro Hantman) from his days as a reporter through his career as a political fix-it-man and, well, party hack. He addresses us and tells his tale. That set-up allows McEleney to have characters remain on stage at the end of one scene while others enter to begin the next — one recollection emerges from another. The effect is to step-up the pace while, ironically, seeming to be in no rush. The compressed storytelling is leavened by bridging narration that is distributed among the ensemble as they speak from various places around us, like we might assemble such information from acquaintances. All this is in the service of a compelling story, supplemented by some bitingly satirical songs such as “Kingfish” and “Rednecks” from Randy Newman’s 1974 Good Old Boys album.
 
We start out by seeing Willie Stark (Joe Wilson, Jr.) at the height of his ego-fueled success as populist governor, wooing adoring backwoods voters. We quickly flash back 15 years to when he was a naïve fat cat-loathing do-gooder running for county treasurer. A deathly school fire escape collapse caused by a crony contract he opposed makes him a folk hero on his way to the governor’s mansion. Yet his desire to stay in power keeps any halo from hovering over his head. His casual willingness to do wrong if necessary to accomplish good is summed up by a discussion with political opponent Judge Montgomery Irwin (Fred Sullivan). Stark says that “when this conscience business starts,” there’s no telling what foolish places you’ll end up.
 
Such supporting performances, as by Sullivan’s gently understanding judge and Anne Scurria as Burden’s mother, who tires of husbands and furniture at identical paces, are crucial. Regular company members adeptly round out some interesting characters, such as Phyllis Kay as Stark’s political aide and jealous mistress Sadie Burke; Stephen Thorne as Dr. Adam Stanton, Burton’s too-high-minded-for-his-own-good childhood friend; Angela Brazil playing Adam’s sister Anne, who Jack has trouble committing to romantically; and Stephen Berenson, gradually hardening politico Tiny Duffy into a duplicitous rival. The Brown/Trinity Consortium students make good contributions as well. Jill Knox is just tough enough as Stark’s wife Lucy, and Alan McNaney and Scott Raker are convincing in multiple roles, from hicks to tuxedoed socialites. Recent Consortium grad Charlie Hudson III doesn’t have many lines as Stark’s stuttering gunsil Sugar-Boy, but he has a closing scene after the assassination, based on Huey Long’s, that he makes more than moving.
 
For me, the one mystery about this production, a more skillfully conveyed staging then I appreciated 20 years ago, is the decision to make Willie Stark African-American (an N-word insert to the Hall script describes him at one point). Wilson is unsurpassed in the Trinity company at conveying and finessing a full range of volatile emotion, so he’s ideal for the role. Why not simply make no reference to his race, as with the usual colorblind casting that we’re accustomed to? The irony would still whap us upside the head. What we have now is explicitly an anachronistic alternate universe, in which racists vote for a black man, instead of our world as we can wistfully imagine it.
 
At the opening and closing of the play, Wilson, singing Randy Newman’s prescient “Louisiana 1927,” with its chorus of “They’re tryin’ to wash us away/They’re tryin’ to wash us away,” will break your heart and rekindle a fire in your mind.
 
McEleney’s take on All the King’s Men is a masterwork elevated to masterpiece. This will be hard to beat as the theater event of the just-begun season. 
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Related: Then is now, Adaptation, Life’s enchanted cup, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Politics, Pulitzer Prize Committee, Huey Long,  More more >
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