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BWW Review: Playhouse Stages a Large Scale ALL THE WAY

"I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er," says Macbeth in William Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name. I have always felt that these lines could have described President Lyndon Johnson as he doggedly followed his disastrous course in Vietnam. Now, certainly, Johnson was no villain as such; however, to countless Americans, his term in office will be forever marred by his hubristic determination to succeed. For some families touched by tragedy, his very name will be forever reviled. However, in recent years, many historians (such as Doris Kearns Goodwin) have tried to see "the forest" beyond "the trees" and have lauded Johnson for effecting legislation that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in voting rights for Blacks. Playhouse on the Square's current production of Robert Schenkkan's ALL THE WAY (recalling LBJ's campaign slogan "All the way with LBJ") focuses on Johnson's political maneuvers in that arena -- especially as they factor in his desire to be elected as something more than an "accidental President."

I'd like to think that Shakespeare, had he known Johnson, would have readily taken to quill and ink, as the former Texan Senator was one of those "larger than life" characters who will always fascinate -- "warts and all." As the play opens, Johnson has just taken office after the assassination of the charismatic John F. Kennedy (and who could have followed that act?); if Kennedy could be likened to a tautly stitched New England sampler, the Southern Johnson could be compared to rough Texas burlap. Nor were his physical features alone begging for caricature (I recall being aghast when, in a television appearance, he lifted his shirt to reveal surgical scars). Political cartoonists, incensed by what they saw as Johnson's culpability in escalating a tragic and questionable war, loved to elongate those lobes and furrow those brows.

Yet, there was unquestionably something earthy and earnest about Lyndon Johnson. Had not Vietnam been his undoing, his desire for a "Great Society" and his accomplishments in the area of Civil Rights could well have seen him go down in history books as a great President; however, the imbroglio of Vietnam (which, as the play points out, he "inherited" from Kennedy) would prove his undoing, and as surely as his accomplishments in the area of Civil Rights (the subject of this play) set a foundation for greatness, the horrors of that unpopular war irrevocably shattered that foundation. Mr. Schenkkan's excellent play focuses primarily on Johnson's efforts to corral support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and it allows its protagonist to interact with and respond to other historical personages of the period: Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey (Michael Detroit), a well-meaning liberal who must smudge his "white armor" as he becomes a pawn of Johnson's games; former mentor and Georgia Governor Richard Russell (a cagey Dave Landis, affecting a charming Southern drawl); Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (Delvyn Brown, especially good); and the formidable J. Edgar Hoover (an almost unrecognizable John Maness).

Johnson, who had been one of the most powerful and persuasive of 20th Century senators, knows how to "wheel and deal." With forces pulling at him in different directions, George Dudley's "Johnson" does a kind of breathless balancing act, as he bullies, badgers, and beguiles (often with crude, illustrative anecdotes) those about him, including his doting and faithful wife (Irene Crist) and top aide Walter Jenkins (John Moore). Yet, despite his skill at political maneuvers, one fact becomes blatantly clear: This seeming "force of nature" has an underlying sense of inadequacy (he, more than than anyone, was aware of his lowly status in the Kennedy "Camelot") and a need to be appreciated. Johnson's "personal" scenes with Ms. Johnson and Jenkins underscore this.

Director Stephen Hancock has steered this dramatic "ship of state" with assurance and skill. Nineteen of Memphis' best actors assay multiple parts as they populate a broad and diverse canvas. It's fascinating to watch Johnson manipulate and bend those about him -- and then to see them return to their various groups and do the same. There's a lot going on here, as wheels move within wheels: Richard Russell and his fellow Southern cronies, Dr. King and his supporters. Moreover, individual cast members take peripheral roles and provide bold strokes -- Claire D. Kolheim's touching "Coretta Scott King" and "Fannie Lou Hamer," John Hemphill's amusing "Howard 'Judge' Smith," Roman Kalei Kyle's outraged "Stokely Carmichael" -- I could go on.

Katie-Bell Kenney's set design, with those towering columns, is austere and impressive; and the rear projections of character identifications and photos from the era are necessary for clarification. The play runs well beyond two hours, but it is riveting and swift in its execution. Photo courtesy of Playhouse on the Square. Through March 26.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)