Only a Kennedy could have a résumé rife with accomplishments—-degrees from Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School, stints as presidential campaign manager, attorney general, and senator—-and still remain, decades after his death, in the shadow of his big brother.
“Who was Robert Kennedy?” is a question not too often asked in pop culture. RFK wasn’t president when he was assassinated, like his brother John F. Kennedy; he was killed following his defeat of Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 California primary. RFK’s less prominent stature could also have to do with JFK’s famously soap opera-like personal life—-the great cult of Camelot—-to which RFK was largely peripheral.
“My mom shares a birthday with Marilyn Monroe,” says Ginger Dayle, director of RFK, a Capital Fringe show that opens this Saturday at Studio Theatre. She’s describing how she was first plunged, as a kid, into the sad but glamorous saga of America’s royal family. But while JFK was one of the era’s biggest sex symbols, Robert Kennedy had his own kind of appeal, too. Bobby “had girls waiting in line to touch his hair,” Dayle says. “I even found an old Pantene commercial when he was running [for senate] in New York. People were lining up like they’re waiting for Justin Bieber.”
RFK arrives on the heels of a successful run in Philadelphia with the New City Stage Company, which Dayle founded. The show stars Russ Widdall, whom—-if you’re a giant TV nerd—-you might recognize for brief roles in The Wire and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Widdall is also Dayle’s romantic partner and co-artistic director at New City.
Playwright Jack Holmes, who labored for five years on RFK‘s script, opens with Bobby reading a Greek tragedy by the fire in August 1964, after Lyndon Johnson had informed him that he wouldn’t choose Kennedy as his running mate in the 1964 election (the two had a long-running feud). Johnson’s rejection, and the promising political career and growing social awareness Kennedy developed after his brother’s assassination, gave Holmes the dramatic arc he knew would help shape his telling of RFK’s life.
Holmes says the importance of that summer of 1964 “was clear to me right from very early on when I started writing the play. I knew that the key moment, the most important moment of RFK’s life was when he found out that he wouldn’t be [Johnson’s] running mate. Up until that point he’d been appointed to everything.” Choosing to stay in politics—-even though he must have been wary of the risk having just dealt with his brother’s killing—-Kennedy crossed the line into fate, Holmes says. “There’s the old saying that a man meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”
In an off-Broadway production of his play in 2005, Holmes played Bobby. But that outing earned so-so reviews. Despite Holmes’ remarkable resemblance to RFK (a 2007 Boston Magazine article deemed him an “RFK doppelganger”), the New York Times reserved most of its praise for the play’s substance, not its star.
Dayle says she had trouble getting into the writing at first. Theater companies looking for splashy money-makers, she says, “would have picked up RFK and thought it was boring because it doesn’t move you on the page.” It sat on her shelf for a year.
When Dayle eventually came around to producing the show, chief among her reasons was that Bobby Kennedy’s late career forms an interesting parallel to Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. “All the things [RFK] stood for, his platform, what he was saying, was the same stuff president Obama used in 2008,” Dayle says. “It was sad that the more things change, the more things stay the same. If [Bobby Kennedy] had been president, how different would our world have been?”
Unlike Katori Hall’s amazing “what if” piece on Martin Luther King Jr., Mountaintop, which ran at Arena Stage last spring, RFK doesn’t grapple with gargantuan hypotheticals, nor does it plunge into the supernatural. But like the Hall piece, in RFK the idea is remolding a mythical figure—-an idea of a person—-into a complex, very real character. The plays are similar, too, in the way that death hangs quietly over the action.
When RFK lead Widdall found out as a child that Bobby Kennedy had been killed, he remembers thinking: “‘What? They took another Kennedy?’ I remember just being taken by it and thinking, ‘What is it about these people that they keep killing them?’ It wasn’t until we got into the play that I really got to understand how he was unique from his brother Jack.”
While learning the role, Widdall says he was particularly struck by the words RFK delivered in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—-thoughts he delivered eerily just a couple of months before Sirhan Sirhan would shoot him dead at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had quoted the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. (In a 2005 interview, Holmes said he almost titled the play “The Awful Grace of God” after Aeschylus’ poem.)
Perhaps most validating of Holmes’ meticulous process is that Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger came to see Holmes in the New York production (accompanied by Lauren Bacall) and later asked Holmes how he had managed to capture the man that Schlesinger knew so intimately. Of course, Holmes had started by reading Schlesinger’s biography.
Among her contributions to the work, Dayle added video segments to break up its scenes; the clips include speeches by JFK and footage of Vietnam. They aim to add context in a way Widdall’s performance alone cannot, but they also provide the star with a brief respite from RFK‘s nonstop action. “Ginger was really smart putting these breaks in there,” Widdall says. “Where I can go and wipe my brow and take a sip of water.” Physically speaking, it’s no small feat for a single actor, but RFK’s Bostonian accent provides its own set of hurdles. Innumerable actors have invoked it over the years, sometimes to their peril.
Widdall says at first he tried to nail down the difficult cadence that is unique to Bobby Kennedy, which he describes as both “meandering” and “half New England, half New York.” “He’s eight years older than Teddy. They were in Bronxville, NY, when Bobby was a kid, so he doesn’t sound like [Ted Kennedy]. He had a lisp, he was terribly shy.” The actor says those attempts at accuracy “just sounded weird, and it became a case of not giving people what actually happened but what they expect.” He opted for the more stereotypical intonations of, well, Mayor Quimby.
“I will admit that I would be terrified to do this show in Boston. They would tear my accent apart,” Widdall says. Then he pauses and breaks into a pitch-perfect Boston accent, imitating a hypothetical Boston audience: “‘He doesn’t sound like that at all!'”
The show opens 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Studio Theatre and continues to July 25. Tickets and schedule information at capitalfringe.org.