Given their histories, it is hard to imagine “All the King’s Men” being performed at Swine Palace’s Reilly Theatre as being anything other than an evening well-spent. The return of the play that opened this theater 21 years ago lives up to that expectation.
Adrian Hall’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel loosely patterned after the life of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long still engages audiences — especially local ones — with its themes of political idealism and intrigue, of courage and how human weakness undermines even the best of intentions. Directed by George Judy, the tightly run 2½-hour show is pleasing to the eyes and ears.
William C. Green plays Willie Stark, the north Louisiana man who rises, like Long, to become a deeply flawed but well-meaning political titan, and Joe Chrest is Jack Burden, a former newspaper reporter who becomes Gov. Stark’s personal assistant. Burden serves as the narrator, as he seeks to explain Stark and discover meaning from his own sometimes tortured past.
Both roles have potential pitfalls. Green and Chrest avoid them.
Far from a caricature of a good-ol’-boy politician, or of someone trying too hard to impersonate Long, Green’s Stark seems authentic, both as the innocent idealist who tried to keep his hometown of Mason City from accepting a corrupt bid to build a new school, and as the governor who has learned that if he is going to win at the political game, he’ll have to play it for keeps. His speeches peal with the passion of an evangelist making an altar call, and his bullying of allies and enemies has the cold assurance of a man who believes he is bulletproof. He casts a shadow across the stage, but doesn’t block out the rest of the cast.
Certainly not Chrest. The appropriately named Burden is a man carrying the weight both of his father having left the family and an unrequited love, and these turned him into a detached cynic. It would be easy for Burden to fade into the woodwork except when he is speaking, but Chrest has a stage presence that keeps this from happening. The way he moves and reacts, even when far from the spotlight, always draws the audience’s gaze. Working for Stark forces Burden into ethical quandaries he’d prefer to avoid. Those wondering whether Burden, like Stark, will lose himself have to wait to the end to find out.
They do not lack for support. Most noteworthy are Jenny Ballard as Sadie Burke, the governor’s secretary and mistress; Cristine McMurdo-Wallis as Burden’s mother; Kristina Sutton as Burden’s childhood sweetheart, Anne Stanton; Jason Boyle as Sugar Boy O’Shean, Stark’s stuttering driver and bodyguard; Anthony McMurray as Anne’s brother, Adam Stanton; Gregory Leute in six roles; and Tony Medlin, who has three roles, most memorably as Tiny Duffy.
Also delightful is Jessica Jain as Lady Jain, a sassy lounge singer with a sparkling voice whose songs lend texture to the show, and whose insouciant spirit provides smiles as she interacts with the patrons before the show and during intermission. Hers is not the only good voice. There are excellent harmonies when small groups and the entire chorus performs.
This is not a musical, but songs add to the story. Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927” is sung several times, just in case anyone forgets where this play is based. A projection screen, in addition to keeping track of times and locations, frequently displays photos of Long, just in case anyone forgets about whom this play is based.
That history, of course, is why “All the King’s Men” continues to resonate on the stage. Especially this one.