RFK (New City Stage): An American tragedy

Russ Widdall as RFK.
Russ Widdall as RFK.

It’s a tribute to the New City Stage Company remount of Jack Holmes’s play RFK that after watching Russ Widdall’s engrossing portrayal of Robert F. Kennedy, I find myself contemplating Kennedy’s legacy rather than the production itself.

Widdall adopts RFK’s Bostonian accent and he bears a slight resemblance to the politician, but it is his emotional commitment that vivifies RFK for the audience. The Kennedy that emerges from his performance is an intelligent and fiercely moral leader, espousing an idealism and hope for social justice that no longer seem plausible as public rhetoric.

Director Ginger Dayle and sound and video designer Ren Manley intersperse audio and visuals from the 1960s, complementing Widdall’s powerful performance with a great soundtrack and contextualizing video clips. Following pre-show newsreels from JFK’s assassination, the play begins in 1964—eight months after the fateful day in Dallas. (New City will present two shows of the play with critical postscripts on November 22, 2013: the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s murder).

Longtime political rival President Lyndon B. Johnson has just informed Bobby Kennedy that he will not be named as running mate for the upcoming presidential campaign. Kennedy resigns as attorney general to run for the Senate from New York. The play then follows Bobby’s political career up to his own assassination, just after winning the 1968 Democratic presidential primary for California.

The median age of someone in the United States is 36.8, so Kennedy died almost a decade before the average American was born. Like me, most people will have only seen the odd archive tape of his speeches. In my case, while researching Martin Luther King, Jr., as a writer for the National Constitution Center, I came across RFK’s remarkably thoughtful, intellectual, and empathetic impromptu speech given on the night of MLK’s assassination. Widdall’s recreation of the speech evokes similar regard. He does not mimic or caricature the politician as a SNL skit might, but compellingly captures both the humanity and larger-than-nature gravitas of the historical figure.

John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy (middle), and Ted Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy (middle), and Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy quotes Greek playwright Aeschylus in his eulogy of MLK (“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom”) and Holmes’s script—briskly and smoothly edited by Dayle—also sees RFK quote Shakespeare, Tennyson, Camus, and Orwell.

Intellectually robust, Kennedy’s speeches are also infused with compassion and moral energy: “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

In Holmes’s play, RFK is an American tragedy to rival Shakespeare. He is a man motivated by a desire for justice and opportunity, troubled by his own role in history and haunted by his older brother’s death (often pleading with his ghost). Running on an antiwar, anti-poverty, pro-immigrant, pro-minority plank Bobby Kennedy is a potential favorite in the 1968 presidential election. Nixon won instead: Kissinger, Cambodia, “states’ rights”, “law and order”, Watergate.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony disingenuously claims “The evil that men do lives after them;/ The good is oft interred with their bones.” In contemporary society at least, the exact opposite is true. Assassinated at relatively young ages at the height of their political careers, Robert F. Kennedy and brother President John F. Kennedy have a largely unblemished public memory.

Given the temporal remove and the hagiographical instinct which an unfinished life engenders, its hard not to be skeptical about the story a man seemingly plucked from a real-life Shakespearean tragedy. But as Senator Ted Kennedy says in the onscreen eulogy which ends this production: “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it…. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'”

Why not? Kennedy’s idealism and progressiveness seem unbelievable in our cynical age (HOPE?), but perhaps one reason such ideological optimism is no longer possible is because RFK—like his brother before him—was killed. Seeing Widdall’s inspired performance, hearing Kennedy’s inspiring words, we might relive that bygone era and wonder again, “Why not?” October 31-November 24, 2013, newcitystage.org.


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