BWW Review: ALL THE WAY at Arena Stage - Compelling Historical Drama About President Lyndon Baines Johson
What a way to introduce history of President Lyndon Baines Johnson to the masses. Except for more than a few expletives by the foul-mouthed President, this would have been required viewing for all history students.
The title of the play stems from the public relations people working for Johnson preparing for the 1964 Presidential election. The phrase "All the Way With LBJ" was plastered on bumper stickers.
1963 was a pivotal year in U.S. history. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas where his Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson hailed from and why he was in Dallas that eventful day.
Johnson was sworn into the Presidency on Air Force One on the return to Washington, D.C. He became the "accidental president" in November 1963. The play focuses on his one year preparation to "earn" the presidency in the 1964 election.
Act 1 is just plain mesmerizing as Johnson fights to see that the Civil Rights Act gets passed. Johnson saw firsthand growing up in Texas the necessity for the Civil Rights Act and the play demonstrates how that historic achievement was accomplished.
It is a riveting story how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was achieved. Johnson was an expert in dealing with Congress, thanks to his many years on Capitol Hill. Director Kyle Donnelly masterfully demonstrates how this is done using the theater-in -the-round of the Fichandler Theater expertly.
ALL THE WAY is like a civics lesson in how bills get passed in Congress. Many may recognize the famous names portrayed from Senators Everett Dirkson (Stephan F. Schmidt) to Dick Russell (Lawrence Redmond) who both have buildings named for them. Johnson dangles the Vice-Presidency to liberal Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (Richard Clodfelter) for his efforts in attempting to achieve his goal. (Robert F. Kennedy also was after this same position but was rebuffed by Johnson.)
There is FBI Director Edgar Hoover (Richmond Hoxie) who is seen eaves-dropping on Martin Luther King conversations. (Johnson is seen laughing during listening to these private conversations.)
The Achilles heel of Johnson's presidency was the Vietnam War and Robert McNamara (David Bishins) is the Secretary of Defense who presents disturbing facts relating to the questionable recommendations he gives Johnson.
Set Designer Kate Edmunds has the Presidential Seal on a circular stage that has two rotating parts. There are also about 9 television monitors used to assist the audience with the time frame of events and to offer archival footage of the time.
I found Act II just a little slower. It focuses on the 1964 campaign for the Presidency, the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, and the battle between various Civil Rights Organizations from the left wing radical leader Stokely Carmichael (Jaban Early) head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)and the more conservative movement of the NAACP led by Roy Wilkens (David Emerson), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace), and Martin Luther King (Bowman Wright who also played King in the Arena's THE MOUNTAINTOP). Playing King's wife Coretta is Shannon Dorsey. Much is presented concerning the seating of a group of black delegates at the convention.
Johnson is seen to worry about the candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Cameron Folmer) as his strong competition for the 1964 election.
The play addresses the "Freedom Riders" who traveled into the south to push integration and covers the tragic deaths of college students Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney who were slain in Mississippi.
Playing the lead role of Johnson is the talented Jack Willis who was superb as the bartender in Arena Stage's terrific SWEAT. Willis originated this role with the Oregon Shakespeare Theatre Company and Arena is certainly lucky to have him in the role of Johnson. Willis "lives and breathes Johnson". One truly believes that we are eavesdropping on his Presidency. It's a stunning performance. Playing his wife "Lady Bird" is the wonderful Susan Rome .
Nan Cibula-Jenkens does the period costumes while Nancy Schertler does Lighting, Gregory W. Towle does the clever Projections, and David Van Tieghem does a super job as Sound Designer and responsible for the original music.
ALL THE WAY brings history to life. Do not miss it.
Meet the playwright Robert Schenkkan, Tuesday, May 3 following the 7:30 p.m. performance for a free discussion.
There will be Post-Show Conversations with artists and staff April 14 and 26 following these evening performances and after the noon performances on April 13,19, and 27.
Thanks to HBO, you can see Tony-winning Bryan Cranston's performance on May 21.
Visit the LBJ Museum in Austin, Texas.
On my way home I couldn't help but notice driving by the U.S. Capital that living in this area sure has its privileges.
ALL THE WAY runs to May 8, 2016. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastrage.org.