In enthralling ‘Great Society,’ LBJ’s victory lap is cut short
A review of Tony-winning Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society,” the second half of his two-play cycle about President Lyndon Johnson’s time in the White House, now being staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
Seattle Times theater critic
‘The Great Society’
Through Nov. 1, Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland; (800-219-8161 or osfashland.org).
Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-honored play “All the Way” ends with President Lyndon Baines Johnson triumphant.
He has inspired and demanded, threatened and cajoled Congress to get a landmark civil-rights bill passed. And in his election to the post he inherited in 1963 from his assassinated predecessor, John F. Kennedy, the liberal Johnson has crushed conservative Republican contender Sen. Barry Goldwater.
But in “The Great Society,” the second half of Schenkkan’s panoramic, instructive and generally enthralling LBJ saga (which opened Sunday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), civil disruptions at home and a war abroad cut short LBJ’s victory lap.
And his steep fall from grace after many progressive achievements links to a troubling current dilemma: With entrenched, competing internal and international agendas and tectonic political divisions, is our nation governable? And if so, by what kind of leader?
Schenkkan, the Seattle writer who walked away from this year’s Tony Awards with a best-new-play win, embodies that overarching theme in the complex character and momentous single term of one of our most effectual and yet maligned modern presidents.
Commissioned and co-produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre (where both of Schenkkan’s LBJ plays will be presented this winter), “The Great Society” funnels a torrent of high-impact events into a dramatic 3½-hour narrative delivered nearly seamlessly by canny director and OSF head Bill Rauch; an impressive cast led by the marvelous Jack Willis as LBJ; and a first-rate production team.
We view an onslaught of challenges and crises, from Johnson’s increasingly embattled viewpoint — brilliantly counterpointed by the parallel experience of civil-rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a poised, compelling Kenajuan Bentley).
As Johnson wrangles with Congress and other foes, and begrudgingly buys into a no-win U.S. military escalation of the Vietnam War, King tries to smooth discord between civil-rights figures advocating nonviolence and younger black-power advocates like Stokely Carmichael (Wayne T. Carr).
The tough compromises and concessions forged by these pragmatic idealists are telescoped in a tour-de-force, blow-by-blow account of the historic 1965 march in Selma, Ala., after the passage of a hard-won (and now under fire) voting-rights act.
Police brutality, tense negotiations and a fragile truce nearly derailed by wily, race-baiting Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Jonathan Haugen) are evoked in behind-the-scenes strategy sessions and historic photo projections (well-used throughout the play).
Willis is a commanding LBJ, from his first down-home parables to his final, defeated adieu. Bryan Cranston (2014 Tony Award-winning star of Broadway’s “All the Way” and an upcoming HBO version of the show) played LBJ with a mannered, fussy folksiness overlaying a will of steel.
Willis is colorful too, yet far more nuanced. His riveting, complex president is a good ol’ boy who can pour on the Texas crude, a tactical genius and master manipulator, a titan drowning in a sea of troubles — some self-inflicted by pride that descends into hubris and, finally, paranoia.
With a nod to Robert Caro’s authoritative LBJ biographies, “The Great Society” also weaves in many other key figures of the time, including Sen. Robert Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Conflating four years of LBJ’s reign, versus one in OSF-nurtured “All the Way,” makes for a lot of traffic. And Act 3 gets sluggish, when some points are reiterated or belabored. (A subdued nod to the King and Kennedy assassinations, however, is a relief after so much other turmoil.)
“The Great Society” can use a pruning before it hits Seattle. But in its OSF debut, the piece still forcefully evokes a tumultuous era, one (as Schenkkan pointedly reminds us) that set the stage for our current political and social landscape.
As Shakespeare observed, “The past is prologue.” And in a rare dramatic history lesson, both dynamic and didactic, Schenkkan’s seven-hour LBJ odyssey confronts us with a turbulent past some of us lived through and others are just discovering.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org