I expected — hoped — to be devastated by the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production of Adrian Hall's stage adaptation of All the King's Men. That I wasn't does not diminish the power it does have, which is considerable.
Hall has crafted an effective distillation of the great — in all senses of that word — Robert Penn Warren novel about a young reporter's corruption under the wing of the backwoods populist Willie Stark. (The book is not so much inspired by the Depression-era Louisiana politician Huey Long as it is a sort of unofficial poetic biography.) This is epic theatre, like the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby or Tom Hulce's stage version of The Cider House Rules, and almost always engaging throughout its roughly five-hour running time. There are some odd omissions, yet much valuable stage time is taken up with invented scenes and dialogue. There are also several curiously anachronistic songs, most of them (like "Rednecks") Randy Newman's. It isn't clear that the singers are stepping out of character to comment on the action, time, or place, so these breaks feel more like interruptions than part of a seamless whole.
Hall's dramatic interpolations occur most prominently during the first act of the production's initial segment, Hope of the Heart (the second, appropriately, is titled simply Willie Stark!). Hope of the Heart consists of events from Chapter Four of Warren's novel, in which his protagonist, Jack Burden (Stephen Roten) examines the journals and researches the life of the antebellum figure Cass Mastern (David Klionsky). The repercussions of Mastern's saga — suicide and the betrayal of flesh and heart — send out ripples through time, reverberating and dovetailing in the stories of Burden and Willie Stark (Dan Kenney) as the novel progresses.
It's easy to understand the importance Hall places on these events, but his inventions attenuate the progress of Mastern's history and, occasionally, distort the novel's particulars. Mastern's inamorata Annabelle Trice (Sarah Fallon), for instance, is only ten years older than Cass, yet Hall places her at double the young man's age. He also prolongs Cass's recuperation from a stabbing, then haunts him with apparitions: minstrels in stocking masks festooned with wide eyes and huge lips, wearing tuxedos with white gloves, and singing racist ditties like "Ol' Dick Coon" to banjo accompaniment. It's certainly arresting, but what does it mean?
Still, Hall creates some extraordinary images, utilizing sheer theatricality in pointed, potent ways — through shifting points of view, simultaneous or repetitive uses of dialogue, two-handed scenes that overlap, each scoring off the other; and narrative strands picked up, echoed, and commented on by other characters. Headlamps mounted on a converted hand-truck stand in for an oncoming automobile; a bed that becomes Jack's car, spun around to represent his aimless escape from Louisiana to California; Willie's alternately neglected and politically useful son Tom (Stephen Letrent) launching a diatribe from atop his father's desk; four women in slinky brown skirts and platinum blonde wigs who stand in for Jack's estranged first wife; Warren's narration read into a radio microphone as though it's merely another broadcast drama; Tom's fateful gridiron accident implied through the use of brilliant white light and the screen on which the game has been projected being torn down as the boy is carried off the field; the figures from Jack's past piling up on his bed and handing him the rope with which he hauls them about the stage — a perfect metaphor for the ways in which we drag our previous lives behind us.
Hall's cast is uniformly excellent, lead by Stephen Roten's exceptionally strong presence as Jack Burden. Roten moves from callow student to cynical newsman to ardent politico to doubting acolyte, making each of Jack's temporal selves distinct and at the same time demonstrably part of an organic whole. Sarah Fallon, meanwhile, demonstrates a protean ability to alter herself completely — from the playful, aristocratic, sensual, and virago-like Annabelle Trice to the earthy, politically savvy, and tragically misguided Sadie Burke. The differentiation is wonderfully specific: as Annabelle she's all crinolines and politesse, while her Sadie sits slumped in her chair with her legs spread apart. My only quarrel with her performance of Sadie is that it strikes a single note repeatedly, but that, I think, is the fault of the playwright, who has given the character too few emotional colors.
David Klionsky is equally distinctive as Cass Mastern and, later, as Willie Stark's adoring stooge Sugar Boy. Jeri Lynn Schulke is, to my mind, utterly perfect in the central role of Anne Stanton, Jack's unrequited adolescent love and, later, Willie's ardent mistress. Her lovely face radiates intelligence even as her body indicates a more carnal force. From Schulke's exquisitely measured performance it is all too easy to see why Jack is unable to forget his passion for Anne.
Carl Martin's Tiny Duffy is splendidly base and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Mitch W. Butts cannily underplays his ingeniously cast dual roles as the cuckolded Duncan Trice and as Willie's nemesis Judge Irwin. These two, seemingly minor, characters hold within them the spines of both novel and play; from their similar fates, all else flows. Dan Kenney nicely assays the bifurcated strands of Willie's character as he moves from modest, ardent populist to venal, obsessive career politician. It's a solid, sometimes even inspired performance, but I couldn't help thinking how incandescent Burning Coal's resident genius David Henderson would have been in the role.
No such qualms, however, attend Lynda Clark's astonishingly effective performance as Jack's enigmatic, social-climbing mother. Secretive, aloof, dry, pretentious yet maternal in her own fashion, Clark paints one of a wholly convincing portrait of a woman whose strength of purpose has come at a terrible cost. Her screams of agonized grief on hearing a piece of insupportable news during the crucial second act of Willie Stark! go straight to the bone. Her gesture to Jack at the close of the play — she reaches for him briefly, drops her arm, kisses him, then cleans her lipstick from his cheek — is so inspired, moving, and in character you don't know whether to weep for the woman's anguished inability to express her love, or smile at this superb actor's resplendently beautiful sense of craft.
Sonya Drum's essentially open set features, at one end, a shack and at the other, a statehouse, perfectly encapsulating Willie's modest origins and his grandiloquent goals. Chris Popowich's lighting is somewhat minimalist, making any sudden changes all that much more effective. And the costumes by Mary McKeithen are apt and inventive in turn.
See All the King's Men, by all means. It's a rare event, even if, ultimately, it leaves you slightly under-whelmed.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents All the King's Men — Part One: Hope of the Heart Friday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 18-19, at 2:30 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Oct. 25, at 2:30 p.m. and All the King's Men — Part Two: Willie Stark! Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 18-19, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Oct. 24-25, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 26, at 2:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre at the back of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 South Street, Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 per part ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel) or $25 for both parts. 919/388-0066 or http://www.burningcoal.org/ticketsATKM.htm. http://www.burningcoal.org/ATKM%20Page.htm.