“As Mark Twain said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’”
So stated Producer Melissa Nicholson as she introduced “All the King’s Men,” a drama that opened on Saturday night at Gamut Theatre Group’s historic theater in downtown Harrisburg.
Read into that statement what you will, as the theatrical adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel tells the story of an amoral, populist politician with a soiled personal life and an edifice complex.
We first meet Willie Stark, the semi-fictional, Depression-era governor of Louisiana, as he stands tall on a balcony and delivers a stemwinder before a fawning crowd of poor, yet proud, self-described “hicks.”
As usual, he’s promising them something—in this case, a $10 million ($175 million in 2019 dollars) medical facility—“the best and biggest hospital,” he boasts, with characteristic hyperbole. His motivation, as always, is self-serving and his words insincere. Stark is less interested in providing world-class health care than he is in buying people’s loyalty through a massive public project.
The play then ventures into the past to show Stark’s ascent to power, a rise marked by increasing professional corruption and personal debasement.
Core company actor Nick Wasileski stars as Stark, and he captures the ambitious politician soundly in the character’s two incarnations—as a principled, small-town lawyer and as a Machiavellian predator. This transformation, sparked by crushing disillusionment and fueled by demon rum, takes root because, well, it works, and Stark soon claws atop the rat heap of Louisiana politics.
Of course, no man can rise alone, and Stark surrounds himself with a circle of enablers and fixers who themselves are troubled, conflicted and, increasingly, compromised. In fact, the play becomes as much about this group of satellites and sycophants as about Stark himself.
Ross Carmichael delivers a standout performance as Jack Burden, a stoic newspaperman who, despite his depth and detachment, falls disastrously into Stark’s orbit. And Tara Herweg-Mann’s spectacular turn as aggressive, carpet-bagging political adviser Sadie Burke is worth the price of admission alone.
Judge Irwin, played powerfully by Gamut veteran Jeff Wasileski, inhabits the other end of the moral spectrum. He refuses to allow himself to be co-opted, though that does not shield him from calamity.
In this way, Director Clark Nicholson shows us the disease that is Willie Stark. If you get too close, either by choice or by circumstance, you become infected. It may be because of his professional corruption (bribes, kickbacks, mendacity) or it may be because of his personal failings (boozing, womanizing, bullying). Nonetheless, once in his presence, you cannot escape contamination.
Nicholson also demonstrates how little humankind changes, even as the decades pass. “All the King’s Men” takes place in the 1930s, yet it recalls circa-1600 Shakespearian tragedies: a powerful man, blind ambition, obsequious followers, inevitable disaster. Meanwhile, comparisons with today’s politics are practically unavoidable.
The play’s larger message appears to be that all actions have consequences, as, in the end, the characters seem to reap what they sow. For optimists, this message may prove hopeful. But, if you’re a realist, you may leave the theater, brace yourself against the cold winter air, and think to yourself, “At what price?”
“All the King’s Men” runs through March 3 at Gamut Theatre, 15 N. 4th St, Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-238-4111 or visit www.gamuttheatre.org.