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Giardina play tracks Byrd-Kennedy 'bromance'

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Robert C. Byrd (left) and Edward Kennedy initially fought over civil-rights legislation, then learned to live with one another and then like each other, says writer Denise Giardina, whose new play, "Robert and Ted," takes on the arc of their relationship as U.S. senators.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the first events out of the box at the 2012 FestivALL Charleston is a staged reading of an intriguing play by acclaimed West Virginia novelist Denise Giardina, devoted to the friendship between Robert C. Byrd and Ted Kennedy.

They weren't always the close friends they became later in life as two of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate.

Giardina describes her new two-act play, "Robert and Ted," as a "bromance," as it tracks the way the two men initially clashed over civil-rights legislation, then learned to work together and finally to respect and like each another.

A host of prominent area actors will do a staged reading of the play at the Clay Center's Walker Theater, in a FestivALL event directed by Debbie Haught, starting 7:30 p.m. June 14. Tickets cost $10. Advance tickets are available at the Clay Center box office, by calling 304-561-3570, at Taylor Books or www.theclaycenter.org.

Jeff Haught will play Byrd; Joe Miller is Ted Kennedy; Frieda Forsley is a character called the Obituary Writer; Tim Mace will play four different presidents; Stuart Frazier plays one of Byrd's aides and Barack Obama; and Molly Carter is Mary Jo Kopechne.

Gary Brown plays a variety of right-wing characters including a Rush Limbaugh-type talk-show host; and Jason Dunbar is playing Bill Clinton, as well as Sen. Frank Church and Tom Bennett, a Morgantown man who was a conscientious objector and received the Medal of Honor posthumously after serving as a medic instead of a combat soldier in the Vietnam War, where he died.

Giardina said audience members are welcome to stay after the reading ends to give her feedback. The play will eventually be premiered by a professional theater company.

"It's a full staged reading; it's not a performance. There are no props, no costumes," said Giardina. "This is something that's often done with plays. I can hear it read and gauge the audience reactions."

In a March 24 profile of the play in The Charleston Gazette, Giardina said it follows "the typical boy-meets-boy, boy-hates-boy, they clash for a while then grudgingly come to respect each other. And then they come to like each other. So, it follows the trajectory you see in the movies."

Giardina has won renown for a series of historical novels including "Good King Harry" about Henry V of England, two West Virginia mining conflict novels, "Storming Heaven" and "The Unquiet Earth," a fictionalized biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Saints and Villains" and "Emily's Ghost," based on the life of Emily Brontë.

In "Robert and Ted" she tracks how the first encounters between Kennedy and Byrd in the early 1960s did not go so well.

"Byrd was in his first term and Kennedy was elected in a special election not long after JFK was elected," said Giardina. "Kennedy was from a wealthy family in Massachusetts and Byrd came up hard in the coalfields of West Virginia. He felt Kennedy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and got all the committees handed to him. Byrd knew that was not going to be the case with him."

The play touches on the albatrosses around the neck of each senator that would follow them throughout their careers. For Byrd, it was his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan as a younger man, and for Kennedy it was Chappaquiddick -- the July 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne, whose body was discovered underwater inside an automobile later found to have been driven by Kennedy.

Giardina said she hopes "Robert and Ted" gives theatergoers an appreciation for the two senators "with all their flaws." After all the conflict and noise, in the end what most impresses her about both men was "their basic humanity and basic decency," she said.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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