Jack Holmes becomes Robert F. Kennedy the second he sets foot on the Court Theatre stage, and he does it without phony makeup, gimmickry or exaggerated gestures. Holmes is author as well as star of his one-man show “The Awful Grace of God,” and he catapults us into Kennedy’s often-tortured world with a succession of anecdotes that incisively expose his subject’s weaknesses as well as strengths.
Director Jenny Sullivan opens in darkness, a phone rings shrilly and we hear RFK’s bitterly resigned comment, “I’m not going to be vice president.” One of his arch enemies, Lyndon Johnson, has rejected him as running mate. This is no surprise, since Bobby is a pugnacious fighter, and Johnson is quoted as saying, “Whoever I pick, I want his pecker in my pocket.” Holmes flashes a boyish, dazzingly toothy smile as his RFK veers from humorous references to wife Ethel (“I serve one boss … and she’s at home”) to listing a litany of grievances against J. Edgar Hoover and “the face of evil,” Jimmy Hoffa.
Playwright Holmes painstakingly charts the evolution of Kennedy from neglected youth to a statesman of stature. We see a childhood where Bobby’s father ignores him despite his desperate attempts to win over a parent who prefers older brothers Joe and Jack. Holmes is especially realistic when dramatizing the uncontrollable nervousness that causes Kennedy to vomit before every public appearance. Occasionally, the actor flubs a line, and oddly enough these minor mistakes only make Kennedy’s insecurity more convincing.
Propelled by Joe Kennedy Sr.’s intimidating pronouncement, “It’s the castle or the outhouse … there’s no in-between in life,” RFK protectively and passionately promotes Jack to the presidency. Holmes’ script is fascinatingly astute when conveying Bobby’s frustration at not being loved (“I can’t even get Frankie or Sammy to sing for me”), along with an unwillingness to make the simplest concessions to gain that affection. RFK howls out, “The hell with politics!,” and we study him with mounting dread as he faces down lethal opponents.
One of these is mobster Sam Giancana. RFK, as chief counsel investigating the Mafia, declares war on organized crime, and when Giancana giggles while being grilled, Kennedy says, “I thought only little girls giggled. Are you a little girl?” In Holmes’ view, RFK is a man so consumingly, even naively, swept up in a desire for justice that he can’t comprehend the hopelessness of eradicating the forces arrayed against him.
The first act is overlong, and seems indecisive about where to end. Sullivan surmounts this with subtly intense pacing. She neither relaxes nor pushes, so that the spectator is inexorably drawn into Kennedy’s environment. When action is required, Sullivan finds effective ways of heightening it, such as the moment when RFK leaps on top of his desk to address a huge crowd in Warsaw.
Barry Schwam’s sound is a notable asset, and Holmes shows another side of his talent with mellow piano cues that intensify emotion by not competing with it.
The bulk of Holmes’ play is political, so it comes as a relief that show business and references to Marilyn Monroe remain at a minimum. RFK calls Monroe “intelligent, witty and sad,” and concedes, “I enjoy the company of women,” but the piece is never compromised by gossipy, recycled cliches. He briefly discusses Judy Garland, and Jack Kennedy’s love of Hollywood is amusingly touched upon when he takes joy in talking to Cary Grant. Otherwise, the scenes sustain a brutally honest look at more socially relevant priorities.
The integrity of the play is clearest when Holmes’ RFK sobs with wrenching agony after Jack is assassinated, while still railing against his brother’s failed Vietnam policy: “Why didn’t he say something? All those lives lost.” Holmes writes his characters as flawed, labels politics “the language of insincerity,” and in doing so turns Robert Kennedy, for all his neuroses, into an authentic hero.