Russ Widdall’s portrayal of Robert F. Kennedy is an understated oral progression of a man who toiled happily in his brother’s shadow until he was propelled to run for president at a time when Americans were overcome by anger and grief.
Widdall doesn’t act like RFK, he becomes him, from his childhood of privilege with a distant father, to his righteous prosecution of organized crime, the love of his wife and 10 children, and the profound heartache he feels at the loss of his idolized brother.
The one-man play begins months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Attorney General RFK is at odds with President Johnson and is still in mourning as he reflects on his own role as a pugnacious knight in Camelot, from JFK’s presidential campaign, to his own rise as the president’s most trusted advisor.
With an eight-year age difference, RFK was never close to his older brother until JFK’s presidency, where the younger proved to be a faithful fighter, taking on all the dirty battles that JFK didn’t. Widdall expertly shows RFK’s happy deference throughout the play. Bobby was the one that first came up with the famed words spoken in Germany: “Ich bin ein Berliner”, for example, a year before JFK’s utterance of that same line was immortalized in history.
“Kennedy went there and showed how it was done,” Widdall says, as a video plays of JFK giving his famed speech.
Multimedia is present throughout the play and videos, music, and sound effects appear at all the right moments, from kids and dogs running when RFK is at home with his wife and children, to the actual phone call where Lyndon B. Johnson congratulates RFK on his 1964 Senate win. It was moving to hear RFK’s own voice, say humbly to a man he disliked: “Thank you, thank you for all your help. It really made a difference.”
by Jack Holmes
at Studio Theatre – Stage 4
1501 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20005
Details and tickets
Hearing him speak, you realize RFK was quiet speaker, and so is Widdall. While the multimedia is an excellent accompaniment to a dense script, the volume often drowned out Widdall’s words. Director Ginger Dayle has done a masterful job, but turning down the sound just one or two notches would improve the show significantly.
Widdall’s transformation into RFK is seamless. He shifts deftly between RFK the brother, to RFK the father, son, and politician. There is a moment when Widdall reads a letter a young RFK wrote to his father that is crushingly poignant: “Daddy, we went to the circus on Saturday. Wish you were with me… Won’t you please write to me soon just once? Like you do Joe, and Jack?”
The quotes and speeches that playwright Jack Holmes must have painstakingly researched and selected are a great strength in the play. After becoming a U.S. Senator and hated by colleagues, RFK finds refuge from the politics of Washington through travels, including a trip to South Africa where he delivers his famed anti-apartheid speech, and a trip to Chile where he meets with coal miners.
“I saw the back-breaking work they do and said If I worked in that coal mine I’d be a communist too,” Widdall says. Holmes’s selection here is enlightening. It’s hard to imagine any American democratic politician saying this today.
The climax comes when RFK decides to run for President after a brilliant catharsis where in yelling at his dead brother, he finally tears down the myths he’s built of him, while also lovingly remembering what he said to JFK’s lifeless body after he was killed.
RFK is an intellectual and emotional peek into a would-be giant. Those that remember when he was alive will find it moving, but it’s people that have never heard him speak that will truly benefit from a visit.