If the shade of Lyndon Johnson permitted himself a small smile last night, who could blame him? The irony of having the Washington opening of the second of Robert Schenkkan’s two-play cycle about our 36th President — who presided over the enactment of Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare, Medicaid, the end to the Poll Tax, and a dozen other significant changes in the way we take care of each other — on the eve of the second government shutdown in a month was palpable, and inescapable. The America of Lyndon Johnson’s time transformed itself. The America of our time struggles to pass a simple budget.
Of course, The Great Society is designed to chronicle Johnson’s fall, just as the Tony-winning All the Way marked his rise, and thus is, by its nature, a more melancholy venture than its predecessor. It is also more episodic. All the Way spanned roughly a year — from Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 to Johnson’s election on November 3, 1964 — and thus benefitted from Schenkkan’s wonderful specificity and attention to detail. The Great Society is LBJ from the beginning of his elected term until its end — four full years. Some of the tapestry gets lost in the need to move along.
Still, there is plenty of drama. Johnson (Jack Willis) enters office, and the play, with a huge electoral mandate and a Congress full of Democrats eager to enact his programs. Still, he needs his signature combination of flattery, shrewdness, threat and bluster to move his agenda, whether it is by mollifying the oleaginous Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (Stephen F. Schmidt), or bamboozling a bevy of AMA doctors into appearing to endorse Medicare, or outmaneuvering Alabama Governor George Wallace (Cameron Folmar) so that he appears to have asked LBJ to federalize the Alabama National Guard in order to protect marchers led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bowman Wright).
Most historians attribute the collapse of the Johnson Presidency to the Viet Nam war, but Schenkkan here treats it as a distraction, as LBJ himself may have. He listens as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Tom Wiggins) and General William Westmoreland (Elliott Bales) repeatedly assure him that they can drive North Viet Nam to the negotiating table through some subtle escalations of American involvement, and then impatiently signs off each time. He has two priorities: to not be known as the President who lost Asia, and to keep the escalation as hidden from public view as possible. You know how that worked out.
Schenkkan is more interested in the deteriorating relationship between Johnson and King, and, on a larger scale, the rise of racial strife in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act. Johnson, who tended to see governing as a chess match where all the pieces were pawns, urges King to register Black voters in Alabama, but gives the effort no Federal protection. The clear implication is that Johnson expects that the brutal reaction from southern police will provide an impetus for his Voting Rights Act, which he has so far prevented from coming to a vote. The reaction is indeed brutal, constituting some of the best parts of the play, and Kyle Donnelly’s direction of it — not just the riotous police response, but the way it tears up the relationship that King and his ally, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (Craig Wallace), have with his young lieutenants, Bob Moses (Desmond Bing) and Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early). And Johnson gets his Voting Rights Act.
Other parts of the play are not as successful, principally because the characters who are not Lyndon Johnson or Martin Luther King are so underwritten. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey is reduced to a foil, Robin to LBJ’s Batman. Lawrence Redmond is a fine actor, but he can’t breathe life into the character Schenkkan wrote. (In an earlier version of the play Humphrey is rounder and fuller; I particularly miss a scene Schenkkan wrote in which Humphrey and his wife, Muriel, talk about whether he can ever influence LBJ on Viet Nam). Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson has only a few lines, which seems a waste of an excellent actor. Willis is superb in a scene where Johnson and Lady Bird attend a wake for the son of LBJ’s secretary (Deonna Bouye), who has been killed in the war, but the scene itself seems strangely bloodless.
In All the Way Johnson had an adversary, Sen. Richard Russell, with whom he had a complex and powerful relationship, but here his adversaries — Wallace, New York Senator Bobby Kennedy (John Scherer) and LBJ’s successor, Richard Nixon (Folmar) don’t seem to have the same sort of impact. Scherer does a good job with Kennedy, making him seem bright and inquisitive, but we never get a sense of how powerful the animus between the two men was. Donnelly has elected to plaster a manic grin on Folmer as Nixon throughout, thus diminishing the power of the final scene, in which the two shrewdest American politicians of the twentieth century bare their teeth at each other. (Folmer also does not attempt to produce the 37th President’s characteristic sing-song baritone).
But the principal problem with this production is that it is staged in Arena’s Fichandler Stage, requiring that it be in the round. Many productions benefit from such staging; Arena’s marvelous Oklahoma!, where the actors moved around and their powerful voices reached all corners of the theater, was one such production. But The Great Society, with its intimate conversations, extended speeches, and ruminative monologues, is not one of them. For extended periods characters stand (or sit) with their backs to one of the four audience sides, and this not only shields their faces from part of the audience, but diminishes their voices as well.
The Great Society
closes March 11, 2018
Details and tickets
This was not so much of a difficulty for All the Way, a livelier play, but it is here, notwithstanding Donnelly’s efforts to find interesting places to stage scenes, some wonderful, uncredited special effects (I particularly liked the way the fire scenes in the Watts riots were handled) and high production values generally.
Willis and Wright do excellent work here, as they did in All the Way, gifting us with complex, rounded characters who both mold history and are haunted by it. To the extent that actors are given roles with some meat on them — Shearer, Bing, Early, Wallace, Andrew Weems as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover — they rise to the occasion. To the extent that Schenkkan has failed to write a complete character, the actors are unable to fill in the blanks.
I’d still see it if I were you, though. Because this is a play in which the principal provider of drama is not the playwright, the director, or the actors. He is instead Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States, who brought will, passion, design and desire to the White House — as perhaps the greatest dramatist of our times — and thus serves to remind us, in these pallid days, how great America can be.
The Great Society, by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Kyle Donnelly . Featuring Jack Willis, Stephen F. Schmidt, Lawrence Redmond, Cameron Folmar, Deona Bouye, John Scherer, Elliott Bales, Craig Wallace, Megan Graves, Richmond Hoxioe, Tom Wiggin, Desmond Bing, Bowman Wright, Jaben Early, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Andrew Weems, Susan Rome, Brook Berry, Eli El, Clayton Pelham Jr., Ben Ribler, Reginald Richard, and Alana D. Sharp . Set designer: Kate Edmunds . Costume designer: Nan Cibula-Jenkins . Lighting designer: Nancy Schertler . Original music and sound design . David Van Teighem . Production designer: Aaron Rhyne . Wig designer: Anne Nesmith . Fight director: Joe Isenberg . Dialect coach: Mary Coy . Dramaturg: Naysan Mojfani . Casting director: Victor Vazquez . New York Casting: Geoff Josselson, C.S.A. Stage manager: Kurt Hall, assisted by Marne Anderson . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.