Arena Stage's lusty and brawling production of "All the King's Men" is studded with vivid images, but the one that is apt to stick in your mind, long after this tumultuous saga of political corruption has played its course, is that of the drowsy spider.
Curious, because mention of such a creature is made only once, early in the production. But it clearly lies at the heart of this adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel and the strapping staging of director Douglas C. Wager.
With tales of political chicanery surfacing daily, the time is certainly right to take another look at Warren's tale -- which traces the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a red-clay demagogue not unlike Huey Long who ruled Louisiana in the 1930s with an iron will, wrapped in the dusty charm of the populist. And the four-sided Arena Stage, where the production opened last night, is just the kind of platform the work requires.
It is Jack Burden (Casey Biggs), Willie's right-hand man and the one who digs up the dirt that fuels his political machine, who makes reference to the spider. We are at the start of the play, which will then flash back to reconstruct the events that are prompting Burden's reflections. But he wants to tell us at the outset what he's learned.
"I learned," he says, "that the world is all of one piece, like an enormous spider web, and if you touch it at any point, however lightly, the vibration ripples out to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more. It doesn't matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot may have brushed it ever so lightly. But there is the spider -- bearded, black with his great faceted eyes and the fangs dripping."
The colorful and violent destiny of Willie Stark is only the apparent subject matter of "All the King's Men." What Warren and his skillful adaptor, Adrian Hall, are really addressing is the interconnectedness of the world. The corrupt gesture, the immoral act, mankind's sudden and exploitative impulses do not exist in a void. They travel out on invisible threads, seemingly lost forever, only to make their way back -- perhaps years later -- to reap their unexpected and sometimes bloody toll.
The play takes place in a deserted convention hall, designed by Douglas Stein, at the center of which is a raised octagonal dais. Like a kaleidoscope made up of bits of scenery, the locale changes frequently. At one point, loudspeakers boom Willie's campaign promises to the four winds, while his larger-than-life image flickers on movie screens, angled to take in every corner of the hall. What Wager and his designers have astutely conceived, you see, is a production that radiates outward from the center of the stage. Like a web, spun in madness and deceit. The drowsy spider's web.
This is, I think, the perfect schema for Hall's adaptation, which restores Jack Burden to a central position in a saga too often thought to be merely the biography of an unscrupulous politician. There's no denying the bulldog force or the disheveled charisma Stanley Anderson brings to the role of Willie, a man who would rather bust his opponents than buy them, because "Bust 'em, they stay busted. But buy 'em, you can't tell how long they'll stay bought."
Anderson's Willie is, indeed, a rumpled force of nature. Burden, however, binds the disparate and sometimes melodramatic episodes together. And his heightened awareness of life at the end lends moral uplift to a play that plunges into the squalor of rampant political ambition.
Although Hall has made a few deep incisions in the novel, his adaptation is remarkably faithful to the original, rich in pungent dialogue. Warren's resonant descriptions have necessarily been left by the wayside, but by layering in a dozen or so songs by Randy Newman (from his 1974 album "Good Ol' Boys"), this production achieves a density of its own. The individual scenes are fiercely immediate, but they come together in the vicious swirl of a dream.
The climate, in fact, is highly suggestive of "Execution of Justice," which Wager directed at Arena and which also examined the nightmarish repercussions of one man's act on a community. In that case, it was Dan White's killing of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.
Burden, of course, is no such reprobate. He is, in fact, something of an affable drifter, unable to claim his childhood girlfriend, Anne Stanton, in marriage and unsure of what to make of his life. Once he signs on with Willie Stark, he continues to nurture the illusion that he is merely a sideline player, untainted by the base intrigue about him. But he's the one, nonetheless, who will lift up the rock and inadvertently expose the rot that brings down Willie and all his men.
Biggs is superb, alert to all the nuances of the role, which he conveys with strapping muscularity. Yet his acting always appears effortless, as if he were merely being himself. There's a self-effacing side to his art -- the engaging casualness of the young Jimmy Stewart. Why Biggs has not been whisked away to Hollywood is a mystery, but count it as Arena's gain.
"All the King's Men" is also a story of all the king's women -- the most notable of whom is Sadie Burke, Willie's chain-smoking, pockmarked secretary, who views his extramarital escapades with the dudgeon of a possessive wife. As Candy Buckley plays the character -- her head jutted forward, her eyes like dark saucers in the ghostly pallor of her face -- she is the Southern equivalent of a Greek fury. Her vocal cords seem to have been cured in whiskey, and when the full company sings "Louisiana," it is her voice that provides the raw, bluesy overtones.
Just about everyone in the large cast, however, gets the opportunity to establish a distinctive character (and sometimes two) -- notably, Ralph Cosham, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Walt MacPherson, David Marks and Terry Hinz, who turn up as a variety of Southern gothics. Mark Hammer endows Judge Irwin with faded gallantry; Halo Wines suggests that Jack Burden's mother is made of fine bone china; Cary Anne Spear lends a will-o'-the-wisp sweetness to Anne Stanton.
So successfully does the production evoke this society of yokels and aristocrats, cigar-puffers and gum-chewers, that when Jack Burden comes to take final leave of them, we are touched. By then, the assassin's gun has done its work, the roar of the crowd has fallen silent. The participants in a sordid drama run riot are left with little more than the embers of their former passions and the shards of what once seemed to be unstoppable ambition.
But the awakened spider has been confronted. And for the moment, at least, its deadly venom has been neutralized. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren. Adapted by Adrian Hall. Music by Randy Newman. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Musical director, Mark Novak. Sets, Douglas Stein; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes. With Stanley Anderson, Casey Biggs, Candy Buckley, Ralph Cosham, Tana Hicken, Terry Hinz, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Mark Hammer, John Leonard, David Marks, Walt MacPherson, Cary Anne Spear, Henry Strozier, Halo Wines. At Arena Stage through Nov. 22.