BWW Review: Consummate Performance Anchors THE GREAT SOCIETY at History Theatre
Pearce Bunting delivers a visceral gut punch as Lyndon B. Johnson in THE GREAT SOCIETY. Rarely in 50 years of serious theater-going have I seen a more fully inhabited physical performance. It's masterful. Menacing and charming by turns, Bunting channels LBJ's ability to manipulate people into positions they didn't originally intend. The arc he travels is long: beginning brash and aggressive, we see him move incrementally into weariness and eventually descend to emotional exhaustion. And all of it is credible.
This is really smart historical playwriting, too. You don't have to have seen ALL THE WAY, the first of Robert Schenkkan's two plays about LBJ's presidency, for this one to work. THE GREAT SOCIETY covers the time from January 1965 to December 1968. Essentially, it argues that the escalation of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam (with ever rising costs in both blood and treasure) drained away the funding and support LBJ needed to do what he really wanted to do: wage a war on poverty with a panoply of fully funded interlocking social programs that together would create a great society.
But fear not: this is not a pundit-driven political diatribe. Rather it unpacks a whole lot of history in quick strokes with an emphasis on the characters at the center of policy-making. The opening and closing moments in particular are remarkably well chosen.
Artistic Director Ron Peluso helms the show, the first in the 41st season at History Theatre. He uses a Brechtian approach where most of the company sits around the perimeter of the stage throughout the action, watching events unfold along with us, and stepping in to take part as needed. Occasionally the company functions as the voice of community, Greek chorus style. Peluso uses overlapping to keep the pace really brisk, which is essential since the whole runs nearly 3 hours, with one intermission. Judicious use of slow motion and tableaux against video designer Kathy Maxwell's large screen black and white photographic projections bring vitality to the staging of what is a necessarily wordy play. But since LBJ's language was famously colorful, the words themselves are plenty vigorous, and yes, occasionally profane.
Bunting is not alone in nailing the historical figure he's charged with presenting. Shawn Hamilton as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is forceful and principled; you can see his strategic thinking unfolding in real time. Andrew Erskine Wheeler as Hubert Humphrey does much to suggest this local icon's efforts to influence his boss the president, to little effect.
The production is extremely well cast. Fourteen additional performers carry multiple roles each. Josh Carson stands out for the way he flattens his voice to achieve the nasal tones of George Wallace. Jamila Anderson plays both Coretta Scott King and LBJ's administrative assistant Sally Childress. She also provides gorgeous a cappella singing, beautifully ornamented and expertly timed, to soften and warm certain moments. She's essential to humanize the male power dynamics that drive the official action.
Whether you lived through this time or not, if you have an interest in how what happens in Washington shapes history, this production will keep you sitting forward in your seat. I recommend it highly. It's slated to run through October 28.
Photo credit: Scott Pakudaitis