In 1959 Robert Penn Warren's play, All The King's Men (based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) opened off-Broadway, and asked a relevant question: Is it possible for a corrupt politician to be a man of the people? Do true statesmen exist any more? Have they ever?
The premise is a good one, but Penn Warren is a novelist, not a playwright, and that's painfully obvious throughout the play. He crams themes and opinions down the audience's collective throat and writes self-conscious prose rather than dialogue. In fact his characters often speak in monologue, or say "the half moon is westering across the water." Beautiful words on a page often turn boring on stage, and by the time the play nears its end, the action has almost evaporated, with only moods, speeches and sentiments remaining - not enough to sustain suspense or interest.
The sluggish material has not crippled the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company, which does a wonderful job under the circumstances. Carroll's directing is innovative and provocative, as the fourteen cast members begin the action by popping up with monologues from their seats in the audience, then seamlessly move from scene to speech to scene. The staging alone is worth the price of admission, and makes the morality fable look more interesting than it is. Music, movements, and lights change at the precisely right moments, combining so effectively that the bare, three-tiered set becomes a panorama of scenes in the viewer's mind.
The play's central character, Willie Stark (John Fionte), is loosely modeled on Louisiana's controversial Gov. Huey Long. A once-principled man caught up in the mire of politics, Stark wins a place in history by doing things dirtier and quicker than anyone else, by beating and boasting his way to the top. At the same time, on the verge of impeachment, he builds a hospital for the common man, and resists the advances of the most corrupt influence peddlers in the state. How does one judge Willie Stark? Is he "just plain folk" sticking up for the working man's rights, or just more sleaze in the legislature?
As the incidents surrounding Stark's brisk rise - from hick politician brimming with honesty to loud, abusive governor who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends - are revealed, Stark's friends and enemies also get exposed. There is reporter-turned-lackey Jack Burden (Tom Wahl), whose elastic ethics reflect an unexamined life, Stark's emotionally abused girlfriend Sadie Burke (Mary Blake), and Dr. Adam Stanton (Stephen Anthony), a holier-than-thou physician who discovers that even his past hides a lie. In the political arena, nothing is what it seems, and shades of gray most often fade to black.
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The acting is excellent, almost without exception. John Fionte's Stark convincingly changes from a good ol' boy to a blend of evil, sensuality, and warmth, a decent man in one scene and an ogre in the next. This isn't an easy trick for a performer to pull off in a relatively small house, but Fionte does it, and even when he's roaring, he's always real. The actor has been racking up Carbonell Awards over the years, and another nomination wouldn't be surprising.
Tom Wahl carries the weight of the narrative, a heavy load. As the antihero Burden, he scrupulously creates a weak man who sins Hamletstyle, more through inaction than action. Also compelling are Mary Blake's Sadie (who makes the most of a juicy monologue in Act Two) and Bill Hindman as the decent but tarnished Judge Irwin. Even the minor characters - Stark's stuttering henchman Sugar Boy (David J. Martinek), and Burden's passionate mother (Beverly Bessoner) - are given depth and honesty.
If the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company can produce so many elements of good theater with a flawed work, as they have done here, they should be able to work miracles on a better play. Carroll, whose awards include an Emmy, an Obie, and three Tony nominations, certainly shows her expertise at supervising the overall production. Even the lights by Dr. Robert Schor are used as a dramatic tool, while the characters almost dance into their scenes and the action rolls on without interruption. It's just too bad there isn't more action to roll.
ALL THE KING'S MEN
Written by Robert Penn Warren, directed by Vinnette Carroll; with Joseph Albright, Stephen Anthony, Beverly Bessoner, Mary Blake, Susan M. Chalker, E. Bryan Ferguson, John Fionte, Darlene Frenette, Bill Hindman, David J. Martinek, John Schultz, Tony Thompson, Tom Wahl, and Duncan Young. At the Vinnette Carroll Theatre, 503 SE 6th St, Ft Lauderdale, through November 17. Performances Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; matinees Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets cost $12.50 to $15, with discounts for students and seniors; call 462-2424 for more information.