Review: RFK

By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer 

Before New City Stage Company’s return engagement of RFK begins, Ren Manley’s collection of vintage black and white commercials and film clips, projected onto an onstage wall, sets the scene. There’s an obituary reel for Marilyn Monroe -- that favorite of Bobby’s big brother Jack -- as well as an ad touting the luxury of oil heat and Don Knotts schooling the young Ron Howard about tough-guy behavior. When the lights dim, we hear the unmistakable muffled pop of a television’s button turning off. 

There’s no shortage of nostalgia tripping in this production, with even more evocative assists by Procol Harum, Jefferson Airplane and other bands from the era. The multimedia effects work both on boomers, who remember exactly where they were when they heard the terrible news, and younger audiences living through their own era of dashed hopes and undeclared wars. 

Jack Holmes’ script traces its way through Robert Kennedy’s final four years, after his brother’s assassination and during his run for the New York Senate, the births of the last two of his 11 children, his presidential bid, and the moment of his untimely death. Holmes portrays Bobby as an insecure but loyal little brother who finally found his purpose when he stepped out of JFK’s shadow and aligned himself with civil rights leaders to fight poverty and racial injustice. 

There’s a lot of information contained in the show’s two acts, and only one man, Russ Widdall, delivering it. While Ginger Dayle’s direction favors staccato lights up/lights down and actor-exit-and-reenter scene changes, Widdall tempers these more obvious tricks, as well as some of Holmes’ clunkier segues. The elision of RFK’s memory of Jackie Kennedy’s backyard football catch (“Isn’t that what they call it? A bomb?”) with a Kennedy/Johnson telephone conversation (“Limited bombing? But what’s a limited bombing?”) is easier to forgive when Widdall’s delivering it.

That Kennedy Brahmin manner of speaking goes a long way in helping Widdall’s transformation -- he’s bigger and older-looking than Bobby was -- but, to his credit, he never allows the most famous accent in politics to gain top billing. His portrayal is vulnerable and understated. His Bobby remembers his family with eyes that reflect fear and admiration, challenges his enemies with a sudden fire that dissipates as quickly as it bursts forth. At the performance I attended, several older audience members left the show wiping away tears; if that’s not a resonant endorsement of Widdall’s Kennedy-style charisma, I don’t know what is.

Playing at: Second Stage at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Through Sun., Nov. 24. Tickets: $10 to $35. Information: 215-563-7500 or NewCityStage.org

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