`All the King's Men' is now a play. Adrian Hall stages a bigger-than-life adaptation

When Robert Penn Warren wrote his blockbuster political tome, ``All the King's Men,'' in 1946, it won him a Pulitzer Prize. Now Adrian Hall, artistic director of the Trinity Repertory Company and the Dallas Theater Center, has adapted the sprawling 400-plus-page novel into an equally sprawling piece of theater.

When the play premi`ered in Dallas earlier this season, it ran to three acts and three hours. Whittled down now to a more tractable double-act form, ``All the King's Men'' is still a ripsnorting Southern saga of political corruption - a work as richly resonant as Warren's original, but laudable as a theatrical entity in its own right.

The production owes much of its success to Mr. Hall's bigger-than-life directorial approach (group movement, environmental set, period songs) and to the company's fine ensemble work (19 cast members who double and triple up on roles).

But what most galvanizes the production is an exceptional lead performance by Peter MacNicol. His portrayal of Jack Burden, the book's narrator, not only ballasts the production but provides it with its most effective and evocative link to Warren's book.

In both play and book Burden is the lens through which the story of Willie Stark, a charismatic Mason County politician (patterned on real-life Louisiana politician Huey Long) is focused.

Burden is Stark's right-hand man and alter ego.

Warren once said that ``the tone of the book turned on the question of getting the lingo for this narrator.'' Warren would, no doubt, be pleased by MacNicol's portrayal of Burden, a performance pitched perfectly to the ironic detachment yielding to involvement that is the thematic fulcrum for both book and drama.

It is a role and performance very reminiscent of MacNicol's work as Stingo (yet another narrator) in the film ``Sophie's Choice.''

With his educated, good-ole-boy accent, smooth-as-molasses movements, and eyes that miss nothing, MacNicol is a riveting foil to the blustery excesses of Stark (played by Peter Gerety).

That we're ultimately captivated more by Burden's moral transformation than Stark's downfall is testimony to Warren's achievement, MacNicol's skill as an actor, and Hall's adaptation.

Hall has fashioned a drama that isn't just a chronicle of political corruption Southern-style but a richly layered exploration of myth and reality and man's individual responsibility.

With an ear as sensitive as Warren's, Hall successfully paints his characters with pithy, economical brushstrokes:

Sadie Burke, Stark's aide and spurned lover, is a woman who believed ``you got slapped in the face no matter what.''

Anne Stanton, the soft-spoken yet steely and successful lover of Stark and eventual wife of Burden, is the kind of woman who did not ``want to play bridge all her life.''

Hall gives his scenes satisfying tonal and thematic contrasts and adept pacing. The back-slapping high jinks of a back-country barbecue segues into the manicured formality of a black-tie gathering at the judge's manse; a sotto voce candlelight scene with a spiritualist is followed by a dramatic moment when someone flings open a door and screams out news of the judge's death. And so on.

Even the stage configuration emphasizes the tennis-match rhythms of the production.

The chandeliered governor's mansion sits at one end and the tin-roofed shack Stark came from at the other. A sort of alley of playing space is sandwiched between them.

The inventive use of space is augmented by lickety-split group narration, cinematic scene dissolves, Brechtian banners, film clips, and Randy Newman's thumping period songs. Propelled by all these devices, the production gallops ahead like a plot-driven miniseries.

Along the way a few things get lost in the dust, though.

Among them, some of the subtler nuances of this span-the-generations story. Burden's first wife is never mentioned. His relationship with his father remains murky.

And Mr. Newman's musical leitmotif, ``Louisiana 1927,'' doesn't carry the conjuring ability of Warren's opening description of Highway 58.

What does get through, thanks in large part to MacNicol's convincing catharsis, is a sense of history doubling back on itself.

Burden's conversion to a belief in man's control over his own destiny - ``we are responsible for ourselves and others'' - is palpable.

This theme is akin to that of Warren's earlier work, ``Brother to Dragons,'' a verse tale about the murder of a slave by two nephews of Thomas Jefferson, which Hall also adapted for the stage nearly 20 years ago. Man's ``murderous complicities'' lie at the heart of both works.

The production is also buoyed by the generally fine ensemble work from the Trinity Rep company.

Mr. Gerety has seldom done better work than here as the cocky, strutting Stark.

Richard Kneeland is appropriately somber and vulnerable as Judge Irwin. Derek Meader is soothingly single-minded as the incorruptible doctor who dies along with Stark.

Only Candy Buckley, who plays the spurned Sadie, mars the production's uniform sensibility. Her striding, slack-jawed performance is more evocative of the campy excesses of Carol Channing than a woman wronged. Only her big, brassy voice, which could fill the state of Louisiana as easily as it fills the Trinity Rep house, catches the correct pitch of both her character and this fully rounded production - a panoramic portrait of a man who wrongly believed his ``will [was] the heart of the people.''

At the Trinity Rep through April 26.

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