Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Accidental President

If the test of an historical drama requires an audience on the edge of their seats, then Robert Schenkkan’s new play “All the Way” earns an A. 

Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson
The play is about LBJ and the American way, dirty politics and blackmail, illegal wiretaps and racial prejudice, hatred and fear and joy and hope.  It was developed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with some of the Broadway cast and its excellent creative team, including director Bill Rauch, the Festival’s Artistic Director.  This production stars not only the superb Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson, but also its clever minimal scenic design (fit for traveling the continental U.S.) by Christopher Acebo, “period” costuming by Deborah M. Dryden, and great hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. 

Shawn Sagady’s evocative projection design served to transform the single set into indoor and outdoor spaces in Washington DC, Mississippi, Atlantic City, and Georgia so that every aspect of the production had multiple parts to play.  Also projected were names of the politicians speaking onstage, but that might have been augmented: With twenty actors playing over forty roles, knowing who was who was occasionally confounding, as were all the acronyms of the government and political groups (defined in the program, but who reads that during a performance).  The cast list numbers less than half that of the characters, and the excellent actors do themselves proud playing multiple roles, but we weren’t always certain of the part they played in history.

That’s it for constructive criticism from me.  Most of what I felt about this play and production was “wow.”  One does not expect to be on tenterhooks wondering if LBJ will win the Democratic nomination for the presidential election.  “All the Way” is meant to evoke the campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ!” and it does so by the second act as the political stakes rise for Johnson.

Bryan Cranston in the American Repertory Theatre production.  Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.
About some of those actors: 
  • Betsy Aidem was a fine Lady Bird Johnson (
  • Susannah Schulman switched gears with ease between a put-upon secretary, Mrs. Hubert Humphrey and Mrs. Lurleen Wallace
  • Robert Petkoff’s portrayal of Hubert Humphrey was astute and sympathetic
  • Rob Campbell was unapologetically greasy and egotistical as George Wallace
  • Christopher Gurr was a testy Strom Thurmond
  • Michael McKean was smarmy as J. Edgar Hoover
  • James Eckhouse played several politicians then was totally unrecognizable as Robert McNamara
  • Roslyn Ruff was heartbreaking and powerful as Fannie Lou Hamer and Coretta Scott King
  • Christopher Liam Moore was sweet and tireless as LBJ’s aide Walter Jenkins, then heartbreaking
  • Peter Jay Fernandez switched between a stately Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and an angry MFDP* delegate
  • J. Bernard Calloway was passionate as Reverend Ralph Abernathy (SCLC*)
  • William Jackson Harper was angry and reasoning as Stokely Carmichael and James Harrison,  SNCC* and SCLC, respectively

Calloway, Dirden, and Harper in the A.R.T. production.  Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
John McMartin, snippy and sharp as Senator Richard Russell, was one of only three actors playing just one role each, along with Mr. Cranston and Brandon J. Dirden as Dr. Martin Luther King.  While Mr. Dirden did not resemble Dr. King physically, he got the voice and inflections and — most importantly — the heart right.  The wrangling and placating of differing opinions in both Johnson’s and King’s cadres mirrored one another in a fascinating manner.

The play covers one year from November 1963 through the following November when Johnson fought tooth and nail for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Bryan Cranston as LBJ was driven, an indefatigable powerhouse demanding that we come along for the ride.  He becomes the LBJ who pushed through advanced bills that were too little for some and too far for many, doing whatever it took to get them done, even disemboweling the Civil Rights Act to get it passed.  He was appalling and infuriating and oddly endearing.  Bryan Cranston made us abhor him while we admired him for his single-minded pursuit of certain inalienable rights for people like and unlike himself.  Were all his motives good?  Doubtless not.  He was vile and he was great, achieving courageous and amazing things.  And Bryan Cranston made us love him. 

This is one of those shows where the collaborative nature of theatre becomes clear.  Twenty actors are on stage, offstage, entering, leaving, hovering in the background to overhear, manipulating the set to be different places, changing their behaviors toward one another as they change persona.  All this is beautifully tempered and flows seamlessly as director Rauch orchestrated it.  The play is fast-paced and challenging, inspiring the audience to pay attention to the goals and the characters and the hope for LBJ’s Great Society (Mr. Schenkkan’s next play).  All the Way makes the audience laugh, think, wonder, question, and laugh some more.  At ourselves, of course. 

It’s a limited run at the Neil Simon Theatre, so get your tickets now.

*NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; MFDP: Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference; SNCC:  Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some American history she lived through.

No comments:

Post a Comment