This review of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men at The Heights Players' John Bourne Theater was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
All The King's Men
Written by Robert Penn Warren
Directed by Ed Healy
The Heights Players' John Bourne Theater
26 Willow Place
Brooklyn, New York 11201
I recently had the opportunity to see All The King's Men performed by The Heights Players in Brooklyn Heights, New York. It is a political fable that has enduring relevance since this version was first performed in 1959 written by the author based upon his 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book (rated the 36th greatest novel of the 20th century by Modern Library), was adapted for film in 1949 and 2006. It's title All The King's Men has been suspected by many to have been drawn from the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. The novel was inspired by the career of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who posed a great threat to Franklin D. Roosevelt's re-election in 1936 (that is, until Long's assassination). With his untimely passing, no one could step into his shoes and regain the power he had as state-wide political boss. For decades, politics in Louisiana was divided by whether you were for or against Huey Long. Earl Long, Huey's brother, served as Governor from 1939-1940, 1948 to 1952, and 1956 to 1960. The colorful "Uncle Earl" (so-named because of his relatives, including nephew and United States Senator Russell Long) once joked that "one day the people of Louisiana would elect 'good government' and they won't like it!"
Notably absent from the staging of the play was the flag of the state of Louisiana. I believe that was a good decision. Huey Long was too big for any one state to hold him and he and his quandary is a universal one: Do the ends justify the means? He may have been a crook but he was a crook in the service of the people. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (another "crook" similar to Willie Stark who tried to pack the Supreme Court and use the power of his office to hurt and punish his enemies) not only kept Governor Huey Long out of the implementation of his "New Deal" programs but also sicked the IRS on him. Their investigation into Long came up empty-handed; remarkable given Huey Long's alleged reputation for being corrupt.
The issue discussed between the two most notable characters, Willie Stark, ably played by Bill Barry, as the aspiring politician, and Jack Burden, who becomes a political operative in Willie Stark's service, equally well-acted by Terry Ellison, debate whether one can really be "an honest politician" or whether you have to get yourself dirty in order to do good in the long-run. Both pay a deep price. Stark is killed through the machinations of a jealous mistress and Burden finds it hard to face himself because he caused Judge Irwin, effectively portrayed by Raymond O. Wagner, to commit suicide. Judge Irwin, noted and respected for his honesty, accepted a bribe when he was Attorney General, and when Governor Stanton backed him up and refused to investigate the corruption, a man committed suicide. Judge Irwin buried the dirty deed deeply in his memory in the hope that doing good over a number of years would make up for his past indiscretions. When Jack Burden discovers the Judge's secret, it only reinforces in his mind Stark's view that no matter how good a person may appear on the outside, if you dig deep enough, you will find an evil or immoral deed he committed. Jack Burden not only now realizes this is true but the revelation results in personal collateral damage he finds difficult to bear along with another hidden indiscretion he learns from his mother after the Judge's death.
Willie Stark, in his first run for governor, is mugged by reality. He undergoes a metamorphosis from an aspiring, honest, idealistic lawyer who wants to serve the people, into "the Boss" - a charismatic politico who uses the power of his oratory to gain traction. Having learned from his political enemies, he outdoes them in political dirty tricks to become governor of the state. Just as Evita sang that "everything will be justified by my foundation," Stark declares that everything will be justified by the hospital he intends to build for the people that will offer the very best medical care for free. Both die before their time without realizing their dreams but leave behind the masses that adore them and await their next savior. In my opinion, the rest of the cast was equally well-chosen and their acting helped transform the novel into a lively, morality play.
The set design (Gary VanderPutten), the lighting design (Leo J. Contrino), and the costume design (Mykel Frank & James Martinelli) were all professionally done. Ed Healy's marvelous direction was able to bring the novel to life with a cast of only fifteen people. Where the original movie needed hundreds of extras for the political rallies, Ed Healy was able to accomplish the same task with only two or three people playing the crowd. The set design brought us from a humble farm kitchen to a local bar to a country mansion and more. You had no problem visualizing you were in a southern state sometime in the 1930s. All this was done with economy and a minimum of set pieces.
In this crazy election year, The Heights Player's production of All The King's Men is a most appropriate offering enabling the audience to think about what they want to see in their political leaders. Without delay, make arrangements to go see it. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 718-237-2752 or visit http://www.heightsplayers.org/