A Tool for the Living
by Tom Wachunas
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” – Robert F. Kennedy
“Memory is the mother of all wisdom” - Aeschylus
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana (1905)
Program notes, ‘THE ACTION OF THE PLAY,’ provided by Players Guild Theatre: “By late summer, 1964, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was a deeply wounded man. Still in shock and consumed with grief and guilt over the assassination of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, on November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, he was at a crossroads. The 1964 presidential election was approaching and President Lyndon Johnson, who had been dangling the possibility of a vice-presidential role to RFK, finally called Kennedy over to the White House to tell him his decision. The result of that meeting and the subsequent direction for the next, and last, four years of Robert Kennedy’s life are the focus of this play.”
It can’t be mere serendipity that the first two productions of Canton’s Players Guild Theatre’s 2016-2017 season are such timely, gripping looks at things presidential. ‘Tis the season of our discontent. So let’s just call it sagacious programming on the part of the Players Guild. In September, the Assassins was a chilling exposition of our culture’s spiritual poverty. And now, on the cusp of a viciously divisive presidential election, we have RFK, a one-man play written by Jack Holmes (from 2005). It’s an even more searing examination of the sociopolitical malaise that defined not only our past, but our tumultuous present as well.
I still vividly remember Robert Kennedy - the man, and his turbulent times. I was just mature enough (a high school junior) to study and admire him, even to the point of painting an oil portrait of him (which I still own and treasure, pictured above) within weeks after his assassination on June 5, 1968. So yes, this play is unabashedly nostalgic in its sensibilities, and yet never saccharine or cloying.
The action flips back and forth – not unlike flashbacks in a documentary film - between Kennedy’s memories of both public and private episodes, taking us up to his victory in the Democratic presidential primary in California. In many ways we get a micro-history of his thoughts and actions that transpired through such pivotal and cathartic developments as The Bay of Pigs, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of his brother in 1963 and Martin Luther King in 1968, and the war in Viet Nam, among others.
To his wholly riveting portrayal of Robert Kennedy, Aaron Brown brings new meaning to “becoming the character.” The process must surely have been a daunting one. But in the end, Brown has masterfully crafted an intensely expressive picture of Kennedy’s physical and psychological demeanors, including the distinctive affect of his Boston accent, his often tired gait, his propensity for righteous rage peppered with impish witticisms - all delivered with arresting, at times even startling credibility.
Particularly engaging is how the written narrative assigns a role to us in the audience and constantly re-positions our place in the action. In some passages we’re citizens of another country, or a local American crowd on the campaign trail. In others we’re the patient producers of a challenging promotional TV ad, or contentious colleagues on the Senate floor. In still others we might be guests at a social gathering, beloved family members, or reporters interviewing him in his living room.
Interwoven with these contextual shifts, though, is an overarching sense that we might well be the pages, as it were, of a journal, or perhaps even Kennedy’s conscience. As such we’re privy to his most fragile and tender reminiscences, as well as his deepest philosophizing. We hear Kennedy quote the ancient Greek poet and playwright, Aeschylus, several times throughout the evening. And interestingly enough, Aeschylus is often referenced by scholars as the “father of tragedy.” This in turn makes for a bittersweet connecting to Kennedy’s returning, more than once, to his haunting thought, “Tragedy is a tool for the living…”
This production is much more than sentimental entertainment. It is eminently compelling art - a still relevant (heartbreakingly so) and urgent call to identify, nurture, and emulate what Abraham Lincoln once called "...our nature's better angels." Angels who, perhaps, fled our midst long ago.
RFK, at Canton Players Guild’s William G. Fry Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Shows THROUGH NOVEMBER 13 – Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. / SINGLE TICKETS $17 / $13 for ages 17 and younger / Order at www.playersguildtheatre.com or call 330.453.7617