To get there, you start with a local adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1946 novel, All the King’s Men, then travel 20 years through stories of other people and places until you once again arrive at the place where Willie Stark rose, then fell.
And you remember Jack Burden’s words on the first page, where he talks about the highway leading to Mason City: “It is a good highway and new. Or it was new, that day we went up it.”
That road has been well traveled. Louisiana is 200 years old, of which Swine Palace has carved out two decades as a professional theater company in Baton Rouge.
It all began with Willie Stark. Now the company ends its celebratory season of Louisiana’s bicentennial by returning to Warren’s story.
Swine Palace will open All the King’s Men on Friday, April 19, in the Reilly Theatre at LSU. The opening will be preceded by a pay-what-you-can performance on Wednesday, April 17, and a preview performance on Thursday, April 18.
There’s yet another dimension to be discovered in this story. It, too, is summed up by Jack Burden: “This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too.”
Jack Burden, for those unfamiliar with All the King’s Men, is the story’s narrator, a newspaper reporter-turned-political right hand of the powerful governor, Willie Stark.
Stark is often thought to be inspired by the life of Louisiana Gov. and U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long. Warren began teaching English at LSU in 1934, the year before Long was shot in the State Capitol. Though there are theories as to whose bullet really killed Long, history points to a physician, Carl Weiss, as the assassin.
So, it comes as no surprise that Stark is assassinated in the story. The mysteries are to be found within the story’s multiple layers.
Layers that are unfolded by Burden.
“The story starts out with him writing his novel about what happened,” George Judy said. “He’s telling the story to the audience.”
Judy is Swine Palace’s artistic director, as well as director of this production, which stages Joe Chrest in the role of Jack Burden.
This is where the aforementioned extra dimension comes into play, because Chrest played Burden in Swine Palace’s 1992 production of All the King’s Men. The production was adapted by Lucy Maycock and directed by company founder Barry Kyle.
It was Swine Palace’s first production, and it played out in a theater-in-the-round format in LSU’s Claude L. Shaver Theatre.
John McConnell starred as Willie Stark in that production. And playing Jack was a student in the LSU Department of Theatre’s Master of Fine Arts program by the name of Joe Chrest.
“And Jack has changed in that time,” Chrest said. “I was about 10 years too young to play him then, and now I’m about 10 years past Jack’s prime.”
But life experience, coupled with a full acting career in film and on stage, has helped Chrest in his return to this role. He better understands Jack and the trials and challenges Jack faces in the story.
And he’s come to understand that Jack’s heart is hollow, void of love. That is, until Jack sees Sugar-Boy’s reaction to Stark’s death.
Sugar-Boy O’Sheean is Willie Stark’s stuttering driver and bodyguard. He is blindly loyal to Willie Stark.
Then again, is he really blind?
“He loves Willie,” Jason Bayle said. “He loves who Willie is and what Willie stands for. So, he is devastated when Willie is shot.”
Bayle plays Sugar-Boy in this production. He wore a holstered .38 over his vest. It was actually a prop for a photo shoot that had costumed actors gathering in the Old State Capitol before rehearsal at the Reilly Theatre. Willie Stark, Jack Burden, Adam and Anne Stanton, Sugar-Boy, they were all there standing on the old capitol’s winding stairway and gathered around Huey Long’s desk in the governor’s office.
It was 1934 again in the Old Capitol as these ghostly characters mingles among 21st century tourists. One couple from New York stopped, stared and began snapping photos.
“How can you come to this state and not know this story?” the husband asked.
But he was talking about Huey Long’s story. Once again, Stark’s story meshes with Long’s. Warren never denied that. Stark’s story has its own underpinning.
Then again, the story doesn’t completely belong to Stark, does it?
“It’s also how Jack finally learns about love,” Chrest continued. “That’s something I’ve learned about him since I’ve come back to the role. Jack is void of love, he’s pushed it away. But then he sees how Sugar-Boy reacts to Willie’s death, how Sugar-Boy had this love and devotion to Willie Stark, and its through Sugar-Boy, through watching him, that Jack is able to find his own heart.”
This play adaptation also contributes to Jack’s revelation. It was written by Adrian Hall, who also directed its 1987 premiere at Dallas Theatre Center. Since then, this adaptation has been staged by numerous theater companies throughout the country.
It not only brings Warren’s story to the stage but incorporates songs by former Louisianian and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Randy Newman, including the song “Kingfish.”
The production will feature a three-piece band that will perform throughout the play, along with the vocals of Jessica Jain, a senior in the theater department’s master of fine arts program.
“She’ll be known as Lady Jain,” Judy said.
“And she’s the voice, along with Jack’s, who ties the story together,” Bayle said.
Bayle not only is Sugar-Boy but the show’s associate music director.
“The music is part of the story,” he continued. “Randy Newman’s music was used in Swine Palace’s first production of All the King’s Men, but as I understand it, it was just there at the end of scenes. The music here helps tell the story.”
All the King’s Men tells the story of Willie Stark’s transformation as he rises from hardscrabble poverty in a 1930s southern state and becomes governor. Not only that, Stark also becomes the most powerful political figure in the state’s history.
He surrounds himself with a rough mix of aides. Some are political allies, others are hired thugs, from his bodyguard Sugar-Boy to the complacent lieutenant governor, Tiny Duffy.
And among them is Jack Burden, who comes from a different world than that of Stark’s.
He grew up surrounded by a refined crowd of privilege, which included former Gov. Stanton’s children, Anne and Adam.
Jack was in love with Anne but never married her. He’s still in love with her, which amplifies his pain upon learning of what eventually transpires between Anne and Stark.
Yet the person whose pain is most heartfelt is Anne’s brother, the character who lives by the purest ideology. He’s a doctor; his mission is to help, not hurt.
And Stark knows this, which is why the governor chooses Adam to head a new medical center he is building. The center is to be uncorrupted by politics, pure in its own sense.
Adam’s reputation, along with his respected status as Gov. Stanton’s son, only will enhance it.
But dark and light, good and bad, all of it clashes in the end. Stark and Adam both pay a price for their decisions.
Then there’s the personal price paid by Jack. Stark orders him to look for skeletons in the closet of Judge Irwin. The problem is, Irwin is Jack’s father figure, having been there when Jack’s father left his mother.
The consequences are grievous.
Kristina Sutton plays Anne Stanton in this production; Anthony McMurray plays her brother Adam.
In the role of Sadie Burke, Stark’s tough secretary and a key player in both his campaign and administration, is Jenny Ballard.
And playing Stark, himself, is W.C. Green, who is quite familiar with Warren’s story but isn’t playing Willie Stark as if the governor is a carbon copy of Long.
“I started to watch a recording of one of Huey Long’s speeches, but I turned it off at the beginning,” Green said. “I just couldn’t watch it. I’m creating my own character in Willie Stark.”
A character who, as Green sees it, is a layered character who is extremely flawed.
“Some people see him as a good guy; some people see him as a bad guy,” Green said.
Green grew up in Mobile, Ala. He received his bachelor of fine art degree from Auburn University and began working as a professional artist in 1989. He has been acting since 1992 and is a member of Actors Equity Association.
He now lives in Florida.
A colleague told Judy about Green, and Judy encouraged Green to audition for the part of Stark.
“He looked like he was going to be a great choice, and he is,” Judy said. “And he’s going to be joining our MFA program.”
Green will enroll at LSU in the fall, but for now, Willie Stark is his priority. Sure, Jack tells the story, but the powerful force of Willie Stark drives it.
Whether Green bases the character on Long or creates his own really isn’t important. The key is unleashing Stark’s power and sustaining it until that gunshot.
The gunshot that reminds everyone that even Willie Stark is human.
“What I love about the Stark character is how he embodies his journey as a character,” Chrest said. “He starts out completely different than the way he becomes.”
This is Chrest’s first appearance on Swine Palace’s stage in quite a few years. He and Bayle are friends, and Bayle encouraged Chrest to audition for one of the parts.
Of course, it seems only appropriate that Chrest returns to his first Swine Palace role of Jack Burden. And in a way, Chrest’s story is intertwined with All the King’s Men as much as any of the characters.
But when the play finally opens, the story will belong to Swine Palace, which has come full circle in 20 years by returning to the life and times of Willie Stark.
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