PROVIDENCE - History matters. For a rich, vivid, and profoundly moving demonstration of that simple fact in all its rewarding complexity, look no further than the stage of the Trinity Repertory Company right now.
Brian McEleney, a longtime member of the Trinity Rep acting company who is also a gifted director, is staging a revival of a legendary production from the company's past, "All the King's Men." Adapted two decades ago by former artistic director Adrian Hall from Robert Penn Warren's classic novel, this dramatic tale of ambition and corruption feels at once astonishingly fresh and timelessly tragic.
It's set in the 1930s, yet it could be happening today; it speaks to the tangled politics of the American South, yet it bears echoes of political tragedies from Julius Caesar to Hurricane Katrina and beyond. Warren based his central character, the fictional Willie Stark, on the real Louisiana politician Huey P. "Kingfish" Long, but Willie Stark grows larger than a political impersonation, becoming both a unique character and an icon of flawed humanity.
McEleney, who acted in Hall's original production, has made a surprising but thoughtful casting decision that increases our sense of Willie's particularity even as it extends his universality: His Willie Stark, unforgettably created by Joe Wilson Jr., is African-American. As the director freely admits, that's historically impossible; no black man could have risen from rural poverty to the governor's office in 1930s Louisiana.
Impossible or not, Wilson makes us believe absolutely in his Willie Stark. His intense physicality, with its riveting blend of power and grace, always makes Wilson charismatic onstage; here, it also feels exactly right for the raw hunger and ruthless focus that drive both Willie's rise and his fall. This is a strong and finely shaded performance, one that propels us through the narrative with the force of a hurricane but also captures the small flickers of conflicting emotions that make Willie a specific, fascinating man.
It's also interesting what happens to the objections of the old-guard elite to this populist "hick" when the hick is black: The nasty epithet they use to describe Willie's black constituents takes on an extra edge when it includes Willie himself. Paradoxically, too, by focusing our attention on racial differences, the casting reminds us of the power of class antagonisms in American politics. This Willie is an outsider because he's black and because he's ill-educated, rural, and poor.
It would be a mistake, though (one that film adaptations have made), to think of this as just Willie's story. His drama is filtered through that of his conflicted press agent, Jack Burden - a narrator in the novel, and a near-constant onstage presence in the play. So this becomes Jack's story, too: the story of a man who thought he could take action in the world without taking responsibility, who saw himself as unburdened by history until he realized that, like the rest of us, he's inseparable from it.
Mauro Hantman's Jack is less magnetic than Willie, as he should be, but his passivity and hesitation nevertheless accrete into a kind of inactive action. By failing to resist Willie's machinations as he metamorphoses from fiery populist to steely strongman, Jack undergoes a metamorphosis of his own: from idealistic reporter to reluctant blackmailer, digging up dirt even as he insists his hands are clean.
McEleney's vibrant, energized staging embraces each member of the outstanding ensemble cast (especially when they join to sing Randy Newman's pitch-perfect songs) - and, remarkably, each member of the audience, too. Two bleacher-style sections of seats at center stage face the rest of the audience as we enter, then are wheeled around to transform those spectators into crowds of voters, mourners, or football fans, as the story requires.
The rest of us are transformed as well. John Ambrosone's sensitive lighting not only helps define the different settings within the opened-up space of Michael McGarty's set - a tavern to one side, a drawing room to the other, and a great bare floor between for everything else - but also generally keeps us, the audience, in the light. We're not just spectators; we're participants.
That's a theatrical device that can sometimes annoy. Here, though, it feels essential. What "All the King's Men" wants us to know is the crucial lesson of history that it takes Jack Burden too long to grasp: that all of us, whether we believe it or not, are participants in a shared community - citizens - and that if we allow our leaders to abuse the power we give them, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.