Anyone contemplating a visit to The Culture Project, where Jack Holmes’s compelling and insightful one-actor play, “RFK,” is playing, might best be warned in advance that not only will they be enlightened and richly amused, but there’s a distinct possibility that they will find themselves moved, deeply and frequently, during the nearly two hours it takes the gifted young actor-playwright to tell his tale.
The earnest and intelligent “RFK” is the kind of venture that sneaks up on you, and, in the process, defeats and disarms at least a few of the prejudices and conclusions you may have brought into the theater with you, including a few you didn’t even know you had.
It will probably come as a surprise to virtually nobody to be reminded that Robert Francis Kennedy had little if any of the seemingly effortless charisma with which his older brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was blessed.
RFK, the man, is, in some quarters, still mainly remembered in terms of the “ruthlessness” of which he was almost universally accused.
“RFK” the show, is, to only a very slight degree, an attempt to whitewash or otherwise sanitize the story and the life of Bobby Kennedy.
True, the intense animosity Senator Eugene McCarthy felt where RFK was concerned when, in March 1968, he declared his candidacy for the presidency, after previously having assured the Senator that he would not do so, is merely casually referred to.
To be fair, it seems that RFK meant what he said to McCarthy when he said it, but altered his intentions later on.
Kennedy’s relationship to another McCarthy, the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, is another thorn in the side of people who hold grudges against RFK.
Bobby Kennedy, as a callow young lawyer, had worked for a brief period in 1953 on Joe McCarthy’s staff, a fact that he almost certainly regretted in time, and one which added fuel to the fires of people who disliked him.
Kennedy did attend McCarthy’s funeral, an action that remains open to interpretation on the part of his detractors as well as his admirers.
On a more personal level, “RFK” dismisses Kennedy’s reputed dalliance with Marilyn Monroe as pure rumor and nothing more.
Among the primary reasons so many viewers will probably find “RFK” so moving, and, to be sure, so painful, is that Kennedy’s life, all 42 years of it, ran along tracks running parallel to many of the most agonizing events of the second half of the 20th century, and they all make appearances in Holmes’s exhaustive, detailed text.
Many of the anecdotes Holmes has unearthed are more or less familiar, but others are fresh and surprising. Many of them are amusing, such as Bobby’s recollection of Jacqueline Bouvier, on her first pre-martial visit to the “Kennedy Compound” at Hyannisport, Mass., eager to fit in, catching a football and then endeavoring to throw it back in the direction from which it had come.
Holmes has Bobby declaring that he was first drawn to the woman who eventually became his wife, and the mother of his brood of 11 children, because, among other things, she was “loud.”
Not so surprisingly, where “RFK” becomes both gripping and painful is the area in which Bobby Kennedy’s life collided with each of the violent deaths which marked those days, Martin Luther King’s, Medgar Evers’s and, above all, the assassination of his brother.
Holmes’s Kennedy admits that since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was his elder by eight years, he hadn’t always felt, growing up, that the siblings knew each other very well.
Among the details which are likely to resonate longest and most deeply in the memories of audiences who see “RFK” is the moment in which “Bobby” recalls the choice he was asked to make concerning whether his brother’s coffin should be open or closed before and during the funeral ceremony.
Holmes never strays beyond the barriers of good taste, but he makes it unforgettably clear that, until the moment of decision, Robert Kennedy really had no sense of the physical damage that had been done to his brother’s mortal remains. The coffin, of course, remained sealed.
There is rich, gentle humor in “RFK”, one of the warmest bits recreating a summer day when Kennedy welcomed a reporter to his family home, the object being to accomplish an interview. Bobby had described his home environ as a “zoo,” and Holmes’ nicely performed scene proves it, with the Kennedy youngsters, of whom there were perhaps eight or nine at the moment, making the calm conduct of the interview virtually impossible.
Kennedy’s much publicized enmities aren’t skirted in “RFK,” ranging from his hatred of J. Edgar Hoover and the difficulties he had when it came to understanding the mind of Martin Luther King to the disgust he felt where President Lyndon Johnson was concerned. Kennedy and Johnson broke publicly in 1967 over the war in Vietnam.
One of Kennedy’s saddest and ugliest memories had to do with the speed and lack of grace with which he felt Johnson had rushed JFK’s widow out of the White House after the return from Dallas and the funeral.
“RFK” deals clearly and abundantly with Kennedy’s professional career, starting with his work on the Senate Rackets Committee, acquiring the enmity of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, and moving on through his management of his brother’s presidential campaign and his life as U.S. Attorney General from 1960 to 1964, when he left the post to run for the Senate from his debated base in New York. The move, of course, resulted in his being tagged with the label “carpetbagger.”
Holmes’s show slows down a bit as it approaches its inevitable conclusion, on June 5, 1968, with Kennedy cut down by an assassin’s bullet as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, having just completed a victory speech in honor of his victory in the California primary.
Only a few weeks had elapsed since the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the country was receiving another body blow.
Holmes’s show, efficiently and intelligently directed by Larry Moss, is simplicity itself, with bare bones scenery by Neil Patel, augmented by evocative lighting by David Weiner and fluid sound design by Phil Lojo.
“RFK” opens in the late summer of 1964, when President Johnson summoned Attorney General Robert Francis Kennedy to the White House to inform him that he would not be chosen to be his vice-presidential running mate in the upcoming campaign. It’s a good start, and Jack Holmes’ play progresses from there, recreating some of the most trying times our country has ever known.