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All the King's Men

a Drama
by Robert Penn Warren

COMPANY : Theatre in the Square [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Theatre in the Square [WEBSITE]
ID# 2220

SHOWING : March 11, 2007 - April 22, 2007



The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and became an Academy-winning movie. It tells the story of Willie Stark, a southern politician who resorts to corrupt methods to accomplish good deeds. The play mixes provocative political corruption with fascinating characters to look at the age-old question of what is right and what is wrong.

Director August Staub
Jack Burden Hugh Adams
"Gummy" Larsen LeBron Benton
Tom Stark Alex Brooks
Dr. Adam Stanton Christopher Ekholm
Lucy Stark Shannon Eubanks
Mr. Frey Peter Morris Hardy
"Sugar-Man" Neal Hazard
"Tiny" Duffy Scott Lindquist
The Professor Marshall Marden
Willie Stark David Milford
Jack's Mother Jackie Prucha
Judge Irwin Tom Thon
Anne Stanton Elizabeth Diane Wells
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Cliff Notes
by Dedalus
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
It’s been well over a week since I’ve seen Theatre-in-the-Square’s mounting of “All the King’s Men,” a stage adaptation of the classic Robert Penn Warren novel that had been previously made into a well-received movie with Broderick Crawford and a not-so-well received movie with Sean Penn. I was never a big fan of the Crawford movie, but was nonetheless looking forward to this, since I love political stories and arguments and trivia. And this is the quintessential political story about power corrupting absolutely.

While most of my first criticisms were initially at the nit-picky devil-in-the-details level, overall, I was left somewhat cold by the whole affair. It’s taken over a week to pinpoint exactly why. Structurally, the adaptation is a tad unfocused, as if Warren (who wrote the adaptation himself), couldn’t filter the novel’s myriad characters and incidents into a cohesive dramatic arc. It is, in effect, a “Cliff Notes” version of the novel.

Let me start with the central figure, Louisiana Demagogue Willy Stark. Rather than a multi-textured portrait of a man going from “man-of-the-people” to political boss, we’re shown what amounts to a two-tone caricature. He abruptly moves from a doofus being used by the political machine to a rabble-rousing idealist, motivated (to all appearances) by a good slug from a pocket flask. This is not a compelling character portrait, but a playwright’s puppet who acts and speaks only to move the plot.

Also, narrator Jack Burden comes across as a cipher. Yes, we’re shown his background and his family and his loves and his work. But we’re never given given a clue about his character, why he does what he does, why this political “Boss” obsesses him, why he needs to even tell us this story.

And the plot catalyst, Dr. Stanton, is given the flimsiest of motivations, a one-note arm-chair psychologist’s explanation of his final act. Yes, dramatically, fuzzy (and even hidden) motivations can work in the context of a thriller. But in this case, the simplistic motivation is presented as if it’s ALL we need to know, not just the tip of the iceberg.

And yet, I have nothing but praise for the actors. David Milford’s Willie Stark is funny in his “doofus” phase and chilling in his demagogue stage (I wish we would have seen some in-between moments, but the script gave him no opportunities). His Act One “conversion” speech is spellbinding and convincing – I would have voted for this man.

Let me digress a moment here. The play was written as a three-act play, but this mounting kept it to two acts. Willie Stark's “conversion” speech became, in effect, a mid-act “climax” that would have been a perfect lead-in to intermission. What we’re given instead is a “revelation” pseudo-cliffhanger that turns out to be a cheat, followed by an Act Two mid-act “climax.” In other words, the attempt to force the three acts into two did not work for me, and, to my mind, did the play a grave disservice. Do audiences hate intermissions enough to make this necessary?

Where was I?

Oh yes, I also liked Hugh Adams’ Jack Burden, Elizabeth Wells Berkes’ Anne Stanton (when haven’t I liked this actress?), and Kate Donadio’s acerbic-reporter-turned-minion Sadie Burke. I did find Christopher Ekholm’s Dr. Stanton fairly bland and one-note (surprising for this actor) – was he directed to underplay this much? If so, I see little textural justification; if not, maybe he was just having an “off” night. Anyway, the script didn’t give him that many notes, so I don’t really hold it against him.

I also liked the fluid staging, although I thought the set design itself was a tad unfocused. It didn’t quite connect with the “framing story,” and provided little connection to the main tale other than easy rural juxtapositions and referents. Still, it didn’t distract, and my nit-picking is mostly “after-the-fact.”

For a slightly different take on this same theme, I recommend the Elia Kazan movie “A Face in the Crowd,” in which Andy Griffith plays a folksy troubadour who eventually becomes a power-mad media mogul. Its script is miles ahead of this particular script and its characters much more compelling and dimensional.

In the final analysis, maybe this is simply a story that resists dramatic adaptation. Maybe the story needs the liesure and multiple points-of-view that a novel can give it. It definitely needs the detail that was left out of this adaptation. Cliff Notes may help you pass a test, but they’re not so good at helping you pass an evening at the theatre.

-- Brad Rudy (



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