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Director recalls Penn Warren novel's latest route to stage

``Now when you hear that someone is doing `All the King's Men,' you immediately think of the Willie Stark character. ... You think of it as an epic of political opportunism in the American South in the '30s,'' says director Douglas Wager. But he has taken a radically different tack in the Arena Stage dramatization of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer-winning novel. ``In every other dramatization, the Willie Stark story'' - Warren's Willie resembles the legendary ``Kingfish,'' Louisiana Sen. Huey Long - ``has been the central story.'' But when Wager began focusing on Adrian Hall's stage adaptation of Warren's novel, done in earlier versions at the Dallas Theater Center and the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., he decided to shift the spotlight to the novel's narrator, Jack Burden. This goes to the heart of the novel, he says, ``a very moral and philosophical book'' that targets the dilemma of Burden, who did not consider himself corrupt but ran political errands for Willie that made Stark's corruption possible. Wager says, ``Jack had ``to come to terms with his own culpability.''

What has emerged in the Arena production is a brilliant, searing tragedy with music that has been been both a critical and popular success here. The production, which closes this weekend, has been a sellout. Large by regional theater standards, it has a cast of 25, 12 songs taken from Randy Newman's 1974 album ``Good Ol' Boys,'' and 40 scenes.

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The script was derived entirely from Warren's novel; Hall, with Warren's permission, fed all the dialogue into a computer and emerged with a 500-page script, which he cut to run 4 hours in Dallas and 3 at Trinity Rep, where he is artistic director. Hall turned down an offer to take the play to Broadway, and chose Arena Stage for its next production. Wager says he has added more of Newman's music to the production and cut the running time to 2 hours and 50 minutes.

We were talking in Wager's cream-colored office decorated with posters of the plays he's directed. One of Wager's subjects is regional theater vs. Broadway.

``All the King's Men,'' he says, ``is a perfect example of the kind of national constituency of the American theater that's growing out of the regional theater movement as it's coming of age in its 25th year.''

He says, ``The best the regional theater has to offer, which may be the best theater that's happening in America, is not seen in New York, because New York cannot support it economically.'' But the possibility of a Broadway production still waits in the wings; Hall has also talked about a possible film.

Wager, who has directed superb Arena productions of Shaw's ``Man and Superman'' and John Guare's ``Women and Water'' among others, talks about his reason for being a director:

``I have a great passion for directing and for the theater. I grew up as a very religious young man, and I think in some ways the theater has become for me personally as a director a public forum for expressing, reaffirming the potency of the human spirit and its capacity for great creativity, and in a cautionary sense its capacity for destruction.'' He adds, ``Theater for me has to be a highly nourishing, spiritual experience.''

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