As we find ourselves in the throes of a dramatic political season, it’s important to remember this isn’t the first time we’ve been here. After all, the tumultuous 1960s saw a series of race riots and war protests; the rise of second-wave feminism; and the assassinations of at least four prominent American leaders.
As the live, on-camera assassinations of both President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, can attest, violence is not a recent phenomenon in U.S. politics. But Main Street Theater’s virtual production of RFK: A Portrait of the Life of Robert Kennedy reminds us there is also hope in the ongoing fight for justice as it dramatizes the more serious and tragic dimensions of Bobby Kennedy’s later years.
Beginning in the summer of 1964, RFK, which is available to stream through October 25, takes viewers through the final years of Robert F. Kennedy as he leaves his post of attorney general; gets passed over as Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president; runs for Senate and, ultimately, president of the United States before being assassinated in 1968. While the play is narrated by Bobby Kennedy (Main Street Theater veteran Joel Sandel), through a series of monologues, the true power in Jack Holmes’s script lies in the flashbacks of RFK’s life that reveal both autobiographical and historical perspectives, allowing the viewer to consider how the personal and political are intertwined.
Under the direction of Rebecca Greene Udden, the production also deftly includes photos and footage of the times that helps bring this decade to life. This montage style of juxtaposing an actor with the images and sounds of history is a vivid and memorable way to not only honor RFK (for this, indeed, is a work of homage to his memory), but also to underscore the political challenges of the time. Even as images from not-so-long ago flash on the screen, most of the play’s action takes place in Bobby Kennedy’s office (though liberties are taken, and there are public speeches and interviews in the Kennedy house with kids running in and out). It really is amazing what can be done with a minimalist set, as the audience can picture each situation perfectly, thanks to Sandel’s clear guidance.
It should come as no shock that the star of this riveting show is Sandel, who returns to the role following MST’s 2016 in-person production of Holmes’s play. And it's not just because it’s a one-man production. Sandel not only captures Bobby Kennedy’s accent, mannerisms, and quirky mix of confidence and insecurity (Kennedy had an almost crippling fear of public speaking), but he also portrays some of the leading contemporary politicos of the time, including LBJ and George Wallace. Don’t get us wrong, the portrait is as serious as a heart attack, but it’s also highly engaging and fun to watch Sandel perform his magic as multiple characters.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt that Sandel also bears a resemblance to RFK, but it’s his talent that really delivers in a demanding role. What’s harder than playing a major historical figure that we can all picture from our memories (well, many of us, anyway)? Not much. By the end of the play, even if some of the revelations of RFK’s life are hard to internalize, we really do get caught up in the drama of seeing an idealist meet a painful, violent end—even one we know is coming.
Thru Oct 25. From $15. Online. More info at mainstreettheater.com.