A tall, thin man of years, whose short, wavy hair is nearly now the same shade as the granite of his eyes, looks from the corner as the judge carefully measures his words to the dangerous young man before him. "I just wanted you to know that about the governor," the judge says. "That his failing was a defect of his virtue. The virtue of affection for a friend."
The words are spoken with contempt, and the man in the corner clearly tastes the bitterness in them. His dry lips part in a ghastly smile, as he casts his eyes down before him.
Then the scene abruptly ends, and actors Mitch Butts and Steven Roten dash to their next entrance. And American theater legend Adrian Hall quickly shifts his attention to the next scene in All The King's Men, his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren.
The Burning Coal Theater production of the work opens Oct. 2 at Kennedy Theater in Raleigh's BTI Center.
Hall has been working, off and on, on his adaptation since the early 1980s. That is, when he wasn't busy with the other duties of simultaneously managing Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., and the Dallas Theater Center in Texas, two major regional American theaters.
Since retiring in 1989, he's had more time to work at All the King's Men--when not directing one of 23 other plays for venues like San Diego's Old Globe Theater, Yale Repertory Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. Those works have capped Hall's 50 years of service in the American theater, and a career apparently devoted to two propositions: shaking things up and advancing regional theater in the United States.
At 75, his energy is high throughout the marathon rehearsal at the N.C. Theater studios. Wearing oversized spectacles, Hall's eyes are as sharp as the intellect behind them. His manner is unfailingly polite, but quite direct as he analyzes and assesses individual scenes and performances toward opening night.
Not a moment of rehearsal time is wasted. When a rendition of Randy Newman's song "Louisiana," sung by actors, begins to sound more like a tourism jingle than an old-South lamentation, Hall quickly heads things off. "It isn't happy," he says. "They're trying to wash them all away."
On the night I sit in with the group, a mixed company of pre-professional and regional veterans exhibit incredible focus running intricate blocking for more than four hours.
Granted, Burning Coal has been steadily upping the ante as a rising force in our region's theater. This year's stand at Piccolo Spoleto is but the latest development on that front. But how does a company still this emergent snag a living legend to direct what may ultimately be his signature work?
Over coffee, artistic director Jerry Davis admits that it helps to have worked with him before.
Davis wasn't in Providence while Hall managed Trinity Rep, but he was company member there in 1990, when Hall was invited back to direct his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol. "It was a 70-minute wind sprint," Davis recalls. "We were breathless, grabbing coats and hats from offstage and running for entrances on another part of the stage."
"I have been studying him so long," he later adds. "Trinity Rep and Royal Court were the two models I had in mind for Burning Coal. I wanted him to come here so that people could see what it is to devote your life that thoroughly to an idea. I do think his life has been about that--the best way to create theater."
The outcome, thus far, is a $50,000 calculated risk--the largest budget for any Burning Coal show to date. On the night I catch their rehearsal, it seems a dream in the process of coming true.
My first question to Hall prompts a lively half-hour fast-forward through the last half-century of American theater. His tales are as fast as they are wide-ranging, littered with the names of associates and friends including Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter, before returning to Robert Penn Warren himself.
Hall still calls him "Red."
What he terms "the strength of Red's images" ensured the failure of his initial take on Warren's novel. Using a computer, an associate reduced the novel to just the dialogue. "We had a stack of papers--400 to 500 pages. At the first reading, we found you couldn't read it aloud and understand what was going on."
Ultimately, Hall and associates devised a script for production at Trinity Rep. Later, 20th century theater icon Robert Brustein, who founded Yale Rep, would call the first production "monumental."
Hall's assessment differs. "There was too much there," he recalls. "Too much dialogue, too much story."
The following years would provide opportunities for further refinement. After ensuing productions at Princeton and Washington's Arena Stage, Hall developed a previously unexplored historical section of the novel in a separate performance, Hope of the Heart, at the Mark Taper Forum.
After that, he realized he had too much show for one night of theater. All the King's Men became a two-night production. The first fully integrated production of the expanded text debuted at the University of Delaware in February.
But, ironically, this iteration may be one of the last Hall is permitted to do for some time. A major motion picture scheduled for next year threatens to keep the stage performance rights tied up for some time--though Hall still has the letter Warren wrote asking him to work on the script.
When asked about the future of the work that has taken more than 18 years to build, Hall is confident, and even philosophical: "Probably long after I'm gone it'll work in a commercial way," he says. A difficult stance, no doubt, for a man with as firm a grip on time as he has just displayed in rehearsal.
With a future that uncertain, if you plan to see this work, do so now. There's no telling when you'll get another chance.