Who says that only the British can have history plays? Robert Schenkkan’s profound, magnificent, epic All the Way is every bit as tragic as Richard III, but more accurate, and every bit as inspiring as Henry V, but more comprehensive. Like all real history plays, it brings us into the heart not only of its protagonist’s dilemma, but the dilemmas of those around him — the guileful slave-state representatives, led by Sen. Richard Russell (D.-Ga.) (Lawrence Redmond), the bileful J. Edgar Hoover (Richmond Hoxie), obsessed with the sex life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, most importantly, King himself (Bowman Wright), struggling to keep the movement together in the face of the ambitions of younger members, such as Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early), who are impatient, mistrustful, and ready for direct action.
The protagonist, of course, is Lyndon Baines Johnson (Jack Willis), the most dynamic leader this country has had in the last seventy years. Because All the Way, in addition to being a history play, is a vivid disquisition on leadership, it’s important to get this said up front: no American President, save perhaps Roosevelt in his twelve years, affected American life in as many ways as Lyndon Johnson did in his five.
Typically, a President who achieves one of his objectives can consider himself a success; for example, Barack Obama has the medical reform which bears his name. He’s proud of it, and should be (whether you agree with it or not) because it was a significant legislative accomplishment.
Johnson had civil rights. And voting rights. And Medicare. And a Constitutional Amendment which eliminated the poll tax, a device white politicians used to keep poor blacks out of the voting booth. And a Constitutional Amendment which provided a means to fill the Vice-Presidency, something we needed a scant five years after he left office. And the war on poverty. Incidentally, he appointed the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
Who was this man, rumbling through history like a freight train? He was, first of all, rude, earthy, blunt and to the point, which is to say he was an American. Shakespeare’s kings used the high language to turn their thoughts into deeds. So did Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, whose eloquence so invoked the same English tradition that even now, fifty-five years later, we compare his administration to Camelot. Johnson says lines like this: “Jim has become a tad more helpful since I stepped on his pecker.” He is referring to Senator James Eastland (D.-Miss.), an implacably hostile redneck who experienced a change of heart after Johnson discussed pulling subsidies for cotton farmers, a move which would have a devastating effect on the Mississippi economy and, not coincidentally, on Eastland’s own pocketbook. It wasn’t Henry’s speech at Agincourt, but it got the job done.
But the Johnson technique, as limned in Schenkkan’s play, is three pounds sugar to one ounce threat. He coos to Russell — “Uncle Dick” — at weekly meals in the White House. He invites the oleaginous Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (Stephen F. Schmidt) over to the White House and flatters him on his speaking ability — better than King’s, he says, and the envy of Hubert Humphrey. And reminiscing about his early relationship with House Speaker Sam Rayburn, (D-Tx.), he says this: “‘Suck up.’ Uh-huh. ‘Brown noser’. Sure. ‘Kiss ass.’ Yeah.” LBJ allows himself to appear foolish in order to make a point, which is that politics, like anything else worth a damn, starts with love. Johnson was effective because he loved so much, and the people who knew him knew it. He loved hugely, and was hugely needy. “To hell with them,” he whines at one point to Russell. “I’m gonna go back to my ranch and the people who love me.”
As much as the play examines the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, it also peers at the leadership of Dr. King. Johnson, surrounded by his allies Hubert Humphrey (Richard Clodfelter), Chief of Staff Walter Jenkins (John Scherer) and Lady Bird Johnson (Susan Rome) reach out to control the exterior world, but King struggles to keep his own movement intact. Carmichael and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee head Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), mistrustful of LBJ, clamor to take to the streets, while conservatives like NAACP head Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney) and King’s number two, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (Craig Wallace) press for a slower approach. King, no less than Johnson, had to mediate different constituencies. When he tells Johnson that without concessions he might be unable to control his more radical followers, Johnson angrily mistakes it for a threat, but King’s dilemma was a real one.
King’s organization has money problems, too, forcing him on the road for speaking engagements to earn money, which he contributes to the movement. Those money problems play a crucial role in an incredibly complicated scheme LBJ later uses to solve a major problem.
So how does Arena Stage do in taking on this American epic? Well, but not perfectly, and it will get better. All the Way is brilliant writing but a difficult play to stage, and there were some opening-night jitters. The play tacks a ton of dialogue into the one hundred sixty minutes traffic of its stage, much of it in the mouth of Willis, and to complicate things further the story is told in short scenes, necessitating the rapid movement of actors and scenery on stage and off. This director Kyle Donnelly accomplishes with military efficiency, but sometimes the actors seem like they are declaiming, rather than in the moment (an occupational hazard, perhaps, in a play with so many speeches). By the time King meets with his associates for the first time in the play — about a third of the way through the first Act — things have slowed down, and the pace is more natural.
The performances do honor to the characters, and there is some concession to dialect, but there is no effort to impersonate their real-life counterparts. Willis has played LBJ before — in the original cast of All the Way, before it went to Broadway and Bryan Cranston took on the role — and is at ease with the dialogue, but does not attempt the President’s West Texas drawl. Instead, he showcases LBJ’s vulnerability; his Johnson might be holding his hand to your throat, but you can still see the heart on his sleeve. And Willis and Donnelly have added some delightful physicality to the script; LBJ, for example, having been denied gravy for his pork chops by his health-conscious wife, steals it from Russell’s dish as soon as she leaves the room. In another scene, Hoover waits for the President’s attention while LBJ studiously picks his nose. “Be with you in a minute,” he says.
Wright, who has also played King before (in Arena’s The Mountaintop) demonstrates the civil rights leader’s quick wit and interpersonal authenticity without attempting his ringing baritone. We know King’s voice mostly from his great speeches, but great speeches aren’t great theater, and Wright’s knowing, textured performance is more than plausible; it is convincing.
So are many other performances. Cameron Folmer plays Alabama Governor George Wallace, who trolled for the bigot vote in primaries against Johnson in 1964, with the cock-of-the-walk arrogance that those of us who were around at that time remember so well. Toney adds a touch of menace to the cerebral Wilkins, necessary to make the dramatic counterpoint to Bing and Early (both excellent) as the SNCC leaders. Redmond is powerful as Russell, as LBJ’s most dangerous opponent, who is, paradoxically, the man in politics who loves him the most. Wallace does fine work as Reverend Abernathy. And Hoxie is a stone delight as the waspish, prissy Hoover, the man who knows everybody’s secrets, but has a few secrets of his own, as LBJ pointedly suggests at one conjuncture.
ALL THE WAY
April 1 – May 8, 2016
Arena Stage at the Mead Center of American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
2 hours, 45 minutes, 1 intermission
Tickets: $80 – $110
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Rome and Shannon Dorsey, who plays Coretta Scott King, acquit themselves well. It is not evident from the script, but the production shows how similar they are to each other: delicate women, with iron at the core. Adrienne Nelson plays most of the other women in the play, and she achieves separation nicely in brief scenes.
We see history plays to understand history, but we should see this play for a better reason: to understand ourselves. LBJ was not an anomaly, even though he was unique; he was a distinctly American strain, brought up in the distinctly American tradition of collaboration, cooperation and compromise. We need to understand what that is because we see so little of it now. We have challenges today, but in LBJ’s time we had race riots and the threat of nuclear catastrophe. He handled his times through daring and hard work, and we can handle ours.
All the Way by Robert Schennkan . Directed by Kyle Donnelly assisted by Farrell Parker . Featuring Jack Willis, Susan Rome, John Scherer, Adrienne Nelson, Richard Clodfelter, Lawrence Redmond, Richmond Hoxie, David Bishins, Bowman Wright, Craig Wallace, Tim Wiggin, Jaben Early, Stephen F. Schmidt, Shannon Dorsey, Cameron Folmar, David Emerson Tony and Desmond Bing . Set designer: Kate Edmunds . Costume designer: Nan Cibula-Jenkins . Lighting designer: Nancy Schertler . Sound design and original music: David Van Tieghem . Projection design: Gregory W. Towle . Stage manager, Kurt Hall assisted by Marne Anderson . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.