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The burden of the Great Twitch

"All the King's Men" is so crammed with philosophical lint-picking that at times Camelot Theatre's revival of Adrian Hall's 1987 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel feels as if it could drown in its abstractions.

When Jack Burden, the point-of-view character, steps from the play's present into ours and becomes a narrator, which he does throughout, the whole thing sometimes feels as if it could float away on the philosophizing.

But in action, the main characters, Dayvin Turchiano as the morally compromised Burden and Roy Rains Jr., as Louisiana Gov. Willie Stark, are engaging as all get-out, and the goings-on in the play's real time, the 1920s and '30s, keep it grounded.

Jack is a historian at heart, and the play starts with a historical prologue delivered by Turchiano. Like the apocryphal backwoods preacher's description of his sermon (first he tells 'em what he's gonna tell 'em, then he tells 'em, then he tells 'em what he told 'em), the play's themes are spelled out for us both here and in an epilogue nearly three hours later: the consequences of actions, the burden of history, the inadequacy of nihilism, the corruption of power.

Camelot Artistic Director Livia Genise has rooted the production in resonances between Depression-era Louisiana and the populism of Gov. Huey Long (on whom the Stark character is based) on the one hand, and the current excoriating of one-percenters in another time of economic dislocation.

The scenes jump in time, one of the play's obsessions, as they tell Willie's story and explore the moral complexities of a backwoodsian politics in which money rules. Date and place superscripts announce the scenes via the magic of video on an upstage screen that reminds us of old black-and-white movies right down to those vertical scratches running through the frames on old prints.

A wide central playing space dominates Don Zastoupil's simple but effective stage. Bits of furniture are placed here and there, two great columns hint at a bankrupt Southern myth, Spanish moss hangs from trees, and Brian O'Connor's lights take us from scene to scene.

Both Willie and Jack have compelling arcs. Willie from rural hick politico to virtual king, Jack from wise-cracking young reporter with ideals to cynical political hack in over his head to seeker of difficult truths.

Early on, Willie is suckered by the good old boys to play the sap. He's picked to run for governor in a race he has no chance to win so that he'll split the rural vote and ensure victory for the machine.

One of Rains' best moments comes early on as Willie, tipped off by cynical Stark apparatchik Sadie (Cat Gould), confronts a crowd with his new knowledge and delivers a barn-burner of an impromptu speech. For the first time he drops the policy wonk stuff and identifies with his fellow hicks, lighting their fire as he feels their pain.

Genise and Rains emphasize the tragic side of Willie as a man who set out to do good (taxing the oilmen and building roads, schools and a great hospital) and became a tyrant and a corrosive force on everything he touched.

That's partly a result of Penn Warren's tale, which invites actors to become poster children for his ideas. Rains' Willie has neither the fire of Huey P. Long (see old newsreels) nor the clipped brutality of Broderick Crawford, who played Willie in the Oscar-winning 1949 film.

But although the story is ostensibly about Willie, the through-line is the education of Jack, who spends years seeking a moral compass as he wrestles up-close with what it means for a strongman to wield power in a democracy. Penn Warren thought the ends didn't justify the means. Not a particularly profound notion, but one that Turchiano persuades us could be difficult to grasp when you're living through the rather Gothic maze of Jack's corrupt world.

Discovering Willie's affair with Anne Stanton (Kendra Taylor), whom he's loved since childhood, Jack takes a sojourn to California and returns with the theory of the Great Twitch, his name for a nihilistic principle which holds that all our words are meaningless, and in the end we simply react to life automatically. It's a view he must learn to get past.

Turchiano is so good in a complex role that all this is much more compelling on the stage than it seems on later reflection. Is it really shocking that you can't do too much evil on your way to do good? Or that actions in the past affect the present? A certain luster leaves Turchiano's eyes as Jack becomes more corrupted, learns hard lessons and makes a fateful decision.

Among the many characters (17 plus ensemble roles), Gould stands out as Sadie Burke, Willie's smart, tough, sometime mistress who knows where all the bodies are buried. Much of the play is in essence an un-burying.

"Time will bring all things out," Willie says in one of many theme statements that pop up here and there. And not surprisingly, it does.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.