When we last heard from President Lyndon Baines Johnson, at the end of “All the Way,” he was living large in his first year in office, running big legislation through Congress like a hot knife through butter and working on a massive voting rights bill to enfranchise thousands of African Americans.
“The Great Society,” which opened in July and runs though Nov. 1 in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre, continues the epic tale begun in “All the Way” and takes LBJ’s story from initial victory into the realm of tragedy and darkness.
The two plays by Robert Schenkkan come out of OSF’s extraordinary American Revolutions program. Basically, the festival decided, under artistic director Bill Rauch (who also directed both Schenkkan plays) to commission up to 37 new plays about decisive moments in American history. That number – 37 – is the generally accepted number of plays in the Shakespeare canon.
Part one of Schenkkan’s offering has enjoyed amazing success. After opening here to huge acclaim in 2012, “All the Way” went on to a production at American Repertory Theatre at Harvard (where Rauch went to school) in 2013 and thence to a full Broadway show that set box office records in New York.
Directed by Rauch, the Broadway version starred Bryan Cranston, recently of “Breaking Bad,” and took the Tony awards for Best Play and for Best Actor. To add to all that glitter, HBO this summer signed Steven Spielberg to make a film version, also starring Cranston.
The new play is co-commissioned and co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theatre, which will run both shows in repertory — also directed by Rauch — this winter.
I confess that, to my chagrin, I missed “All the Way” when it ran here in 2012. But that record of awards gives “The Great Society” a daunting lot to live up to.
Worry not: The show is amazing.
Jack Willis, who again plays LBJ, commands the stage from the moment the lights come up and he launches into a compelling monologue about a rodeo bull rider, who hangs on as long as he can but inevitably is thrown anyway.
Loud, profane and manipulative, Willis’ LBJ is a consummate back-room politician, getting his way through country-boy charm, occasional arm twisting, and downright blackmail.
A poor, self-made Texan, Johnson hates the wealthy senator from New York he always calls “Bobby-fucking-Kennedy” (Danforth Comins), but he works with him nonetheless. LBJ flatters, charms and then back stabs Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Jonathan Haugen) over protection of civil rights marchers going from Selma to Montgomery.
The highest drama comes in the president’s relationship with Martin Luther King, played strongly here by Kenajuan Bentley. King is simultaneously moderating the hotter tempers in his own movement and pushing hard on LBJ to get an effective voting act through Congress; Johnson, for his part, is managing his own larger picture, trying to keep Southern Democrats appeased enough that his Great Society package of bills aimed at relieving poverty around the country won’t collapse.
Behind it all is the horror of the Vietnam war, which Johnson inherits from the Kennedy administration but seems powerless, or unwilling, to stop. As the death toll mounts – it’s projected, from time to time, behind the players – LBJ keeps convincing himself that the war is winnable.
This is a classic tragedy, and LBJ’s hubris is to believe that he can lie, cajole and deal his way out of the war, which finally consumes him and his administration.
As was the case with “All the Way,” the play is staged on a simple open set (by Christopher Acebo) that suffices for the Oval Office and other locales, with raised galleries behind for other scenes. As the country erupts in the flames of urban riots of the 1960s, those galleries become increasingly burned out and ruined themselves, illustrating the collapse of Johnson’s leadership.
Schenkkan is a deft choice for a commission like this. A lyrical writer who understands that history is made by people, not by ideology, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 for his epic series of nine one-act plays called “The Kentucky Cycle.” There he staked out a unique territory of drama, character and mythology whose offspring you can see clearly in his treatment of the raucous persona of LBJ and the people around him.
“Great Society” is history written large, with big characters, big drama and big moments. It’s Shakespearean through and through: Johnson destroys his presidency, and nearly the country, because he never has the courage to stand up to the military and its anti-Communist supporters.
The play, as Rauch himself says, is “Henry IV, Part Two” to “All the Way.”
All the show lacks is a Fool.
As with Shakespeare, this is history told exclusively by and through men. The only women in the tale are in supporting roles: LBJ’s personal secretary, played warmly by Bakesta King, and Lady Bird Johnson, played by Terri McMahon.
Any play claiming to be “history” faces a central problem: History, for most of us, can be fairly boring. There are a lot of dates and facts to absorb. The boomer-age audience that fills the seats at Ashland and most American theaters still knows the main outlines of what happened in United States politics in the 1960s, but we do need reminding – done nicely here with video projections – of some of the particulars, from race riots in Los Angeles and Chicago to the names of some of the sleazy political figures of the day: Wilbur Mills. Everett Dirksen. J. Edgar Hoover.
What makes this play absolutely shine is the character of LBJ himself: He’s big, determined, back-slapping, the kind of charismatic good old boy who gets things done because people want so desperately for him to like them.
Willis plays LBJ as though born to the role. By the time the play is winding down, he is collapsed on the floor of the White House, confounded by yet another personal letter he’s trying to write to the parents of yet another dead soldier. By then he is politically isolated, physically exhausted and paranoid to the point of delusion, and our hearts are broken, for him and for the hopes of the country.
I turned 17 in 1968, the terrible year in which the events of this play wrap up. I had put in time on the streets of Los Angeles, protesting the war in Vietnam, knowing then, as I know now, that it was murderous and evil without really understanding the depths of why we were fighting there.
Then came the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the bottom dropped out.
As I looked around the Bowmer during the standing ovation that erupted after the final moments of “Great Society,” I could see a room full of grown-up versions of those ’60s idealists, now affluent, now comfortable, now a bit complacent – but still wondering: What, exactly, did we all live through?
“Great Society” offers a convincing answer.
Well done, Schenkkan. Well done, Rauch. Well done, Willis and the rest of the cast. And well done, OSF, for putting us all back in touch with our own complicated past.
The Great Society
Through November 1 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre
By Robert Schenkkan | Directed by Bill Rauch
More information on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is at OSFAshland.org.