Robert Penn Warren’s sprawling novel of the rise and fall of idealistic politician-turned-corrupt demagogue Willie Stark, “All the King’s Men,” gets a rip-roaring turn at Trinity Rep in Providence, a city itself known for some colorful and incarcerated candidates. Reviving founding a.d. Adrian Hall’s script and evoking memories of that celebrated production 20 years ago is a risk that pays off for current theater head Curt Columbus. Show is lively, engaging and relevant, even as its Greek tragedy veers off to become a Southern Gothic soap opera.
With quicksilver helming by Brian McEleney (who acted in the original production, along with three other members of this resident company), the show finesses its many jumps of time and place while neatly capturing the book’s spirit and atmosphere.
Michael McGarty’s environmental set in the intimate theater space — with some members of the audience on rolling bleachers — also helps keep things moving. The aud as stand-ins (well, sit-ins, really) for Willie’s campaign constituents is a constant reminder politicians are empowered by the people, whether they’re participants or passive.
Deja vu is in the air throughout the evening, starting with the cast of 18 singing the first of several Randy Newman songs which once again pepper the production with both cynicism and sentiment. The opening number is a powerful lament about a devastating flood that brings to mind a more recent failure of an uncaring government when the waters rise on the poor: “Louisiana, Louisiana/They’re trying to wash us away/They’re trying to wash us away.” (Given how integral Newman’s songs are to the production, one wishes he was given a more prominent credit in the program.)
The music’s complexity of emotions sets the tone for the show, which not only tells the epic narrative of a man’s climb to power and his ultimate fall, but also spins a Freudian as well as a Shakespearean tale — one of real and surrogate fathers and sons failing each other.
Script follows the novel faithfully, even when some of the subplots turn melodramatic or the dialogue turns maudlin: “What about the Junior League,” one character says to a frustrated Southern belle searching for more meaning in life. “It’s not enough” is her response as she expresses regret about not becoming involved in something like medicine — or landscape gardening.
Any stage production would be hard-pressed to compete with the cinematic visuals and economy of the 1949 Oscar-winning film (or even its 2006 lackluster remake). But the Rep’s production creates an electric immediacy for the aud and an intimate connection with the high and lowborn characters.
In one of the more intriguing examples of colorblind casting, Joe Wilson Jr., an African-American, plays Willie, loosely modeled on populist Louisiana governor Huey Long, who reigned over a segregated society from 1928 to 1932. Wilson brings not only his own dynamic presence to the role but echoes of contemporary politicians who are now sounding the populist refrain.
If the production has a failing, it’s that the perfs (Wilson’s included) don’t have much of an arc. Stark’s charisma does not evolve but is clearly there from the start and he simply ups the dial when he strikes out on his own.
Likewise, Jack Burden (Mauro Hantman), the reporter from an upper crust family who gets swept up in Stark’s political juggernaut, is barely distinguishable as he turns from cynic, to believer, to blackmailer, before redeeming himself at play’s end.
Rest of the cast is mostly solid, with standout perfs by Fred Sullivan Jr. as the judge, Stephen Thorne as the doctor and Phyllis Kay as the tough cookie political operative (Mercedes McCambridge won an Oscar for this role).