BWW Review: Schenkkan and LBJ Make GREAT SOCIETY at the Alley Theatre

BWW Review: Schenkkan and LBJ Make GREAT SOCIETY at the Alley Theatre

Last season, in a co-production with Dallas Theater Center, The Alley Theatre presented ALL THE WAY, Robert Schenkkan's Tony Award-winning play depicting the early years of the Lyndon Johnson administration. It was a stunning production. In another co-production with Dallas Theater Center, the Alley presents THE GREAT SOCIETY, Schenkkan's follow-up detailing the decline of the LBJ way, the years of missteps that overshadowed his civil rights successes and anti-poverty programs. But the current production stands in opposition to its subject matter; THE GREAT SOCIETY is actually overshadowed by the successes of ALL THE WAY.


Lyndon B. Johnson was a bully, a liar and a paranoiac obsessed with fealty (who didn't care much for fidelity when it came to him), whose hard shell and bluster concealed a desperation for external approval. You could say he and our current president are exactly the same, but you would be wrong. LBJ cared for more than himself, his significant others or his inner circle. His enemies were "poverty, disease, illiteracy, strife, and bigotry." He wanted advancement, not descent, and Robert Schenkkan proves this eloquently with THE GREAT SOCIETY.

There are so many parallels between the time during LBJ administration and our current time, it's sickening. It's made even more sickening by the play's publish date: 2014. How could Robert Schenkkan know? What I do know is it is one of the qualities that makes THE GREAT SOCIETY so captivating. But THE GREAT SOCIETY is top-heavy -- plenty of culmination, very little resolution. The play, like its principal character, gives out at the end, its legs buckling from the weight of the world around it. On the nose metaphorically, but you may leave the theater feeling slightly underfed.

Director Kevin Moriarty kept most of the production elements the same, which is a mistake. In general, the staging doesn't do justice to the violent parts of history portrayed. The vast, white columns by Beowulf Boritt don't match the claustrophobia and intrusion Johnson must have felt during the Vietnam years. The sound design (Broken Chord) lacks punch. The projection design by Caite Hevner often saves the day, but projections aren't utilized nearly as often as they should be. The intensity of Bloody Sunday barely passes through the production unscathed.

And THE GREAT SOCIETY often pales in comparison. Take for instance Ace Anderson (Stokely Carmichael, Jimmie Lee Jackson and John Lewis) and his solid performance as Jimmie Lee Jackson. Unfortunately for Anderson, his scene conjures memories of actress Michelle Elaine's 2016 performance as Fannie Lou Hamer. Elaine delivered a devastating monologue with such strength that the memory of her speech dwarfs Anderson's respectable performance.

It's worth noting that, while more aggressive sound design would intensify these moments, such moments seem better suited for film, which is why projections are such a welcome aspect of the production. Also, the a cappella performances are well-suited for the grave moments.

As President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Brandon Potter is as flexible as LBJ's morals. He goes to every end to show the audience how Johnson justified his means though, impressive as it was, Potter's performance follows an overall trend. He, Shawn Hamilton (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and David Rainey (Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Adam Clayton Powell)-who reprise their roles-demonstrate ripened performances. (And it's a nice change of pace to see MLK portrayed as clever and savvy.) It is disappointing, however, to see that Chris Hury (George Wallace, Richard Nixon) gives only a faint accent to Governor George Wallace and doesn't even attempt to develop an accent for Richard Nixon. I understand the subtext intended (because a character pronounced it aloud in the play): Wallace and Nixon are one in the same; what distinguishes Nixon is his respectability. Still, it's distracting to see such distinctive men played so indistinctly. Chris Hutchison (Robert McNamara) and Jay Sullivan (Robert F. Kennedy) went all in. It's a pleasure to see Bobby Kennedy and McNamara's differentness inhabited and embraced. It's also a pleasure to see Tiana Kaye Johnson, who gives a standout performance as Coretta Scott King.

THE GREAT SOCIETY does not match the power of its predecessor. But ALL THE WAY is hard to match. And THE GREAT SOCIETY is a fine play in its own right.

THE GREAT SOCIETY. Through February 18, 2018. Alley Theatre, Hubbard Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For information, please call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org.


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From This Author Katricia Lang