Before it heads off to Broadway — and, likely, to another round of prestigious plaudits and prizes — we in NorCal still have a few more weeks to head up to Ashland for the world premiere of “The Great Society,” the latter half of playwright Robert Shenkkan’s powerful diptych on the truncated presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Part One, “All the Way,” charted Johnson’s hard-won initial triumphs, from his abrupt ascendency to the office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “The Great Society” picks up after LBJ’s landslide victory in his first elected presidential term.
The new play traces such signal achievements as the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start and the 1965 Economic Opportunity Act. But Johnson’s progressive agenda is sapped by ghetto riots, Dixiecrat defectors and — above all — the worsening quagmire of his inherited war in Vietnam.
Ashland’s “Great Society” features an ensemble of repertory veterans, headlined by Jack Willis as a jowly, folksy, steely LBJ. It’s the same lustrous cast that debuted “All the Way” under an Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) commission in 2012. OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch then went on to bring “All the Way” to New York, where it won year’s Tony Award for Best Play with actor Brian Cranston (of “Breaking Bad” fame) in the starring role.
All very glamorous, that Broadway run. But I, for one, am just as glad to see these LBJ plays right here at the Shakespeare Festival with a repertory cast, the better to bring out the Shakespearean overtones of the material. Like Shakespeare’s own “Richard III” (also on the OSF roster this season), “The Great Society” can be seen either as a history play or as a straight-up, classic tragedy.
Parsing it as history works for playgoers who retain either direct or hearsay memories of the events described. How, in our recent past, did we sow the seeds of our current dilemmas? Shakespeare’s contemporary public, for instance, living in what amounted to a Tudor police state, could at least console itself that life under Good Queen Bess was better than under Richard, the last monstrous monarch of the preceding Plantagenet lineage. Likewise, we Baby Boomers can ruefully ponder how we scorned and vilified LBJ, our last New Dealer president, only to open the way for Nixon and Watergate, Reagan’s voodoo, Clintonian triangulation, legislative gridlock, “gotcha” politics, perpetual war, entrenched plutocracy and unbridled surveillance.
Such questions engage us greying has-beens, who comprise about half of Ashland’s autumn “shoulder season” audience. But what of the other half, the busloads of teenagers on school trips? Kids who probably know the name of Martin Luther King, but might never have heard of the likes of Bull Connor or Robert MacNamara or Stokeley Charmichael or George Wallace or Hubert Humphrey or even LBJ himself. What are they to make of the spectacle of Johnson’s canny idealism so cynically sand-bagged? It’s enough to give Hope and Change a bad name — a parallel that’s probably not lost on any news-attuned high school kid today.
But, unlike the stadium atmosphere and partisan scorecard tone of so much current political coverage, “The Great Society” unfolds its drama mostly in the context of yarn-spinning anecdotes, backroom arm-twisting, dictaphone soliloquies and family intimacy. This gives the characters a rounded integrity far beyond the shrill, flat shadowplay of headline news.
Willis’ dramatic range brings out all the dimensions of the mercurial Johnson, by turns wheedling, overbearing, introspective or self-pitying. Likewise, Kenajuan Bentley presents a Doctor King with the courage to face down hostile mobs, hot-heads allies, his own self-doubts and a Machiavellian U.S. President. Mark Murphey plays a pair of very different — but equally disastrous — LBJ confidants, the arid technocrat Robert MacNamara and the Congressional protection racketeer Wilbur Mills.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, as portrayed by Richard Elmore, is a puppeteer so devious that he himself sometimes seems get entangled in his own strings. But the prize for perfidy in “The Great Society,” must go to Jonathan Haugen, who plays cameos as arch-segregationist George Wallace and a sanctimoniously conniving Richard Nixon, Johnson’s despised successor.
Speaking of supporting roles, Christopher Acebo’s stage set almost deserves recognition as a character in its own right, a kind of Greek Chorus presence that offers running commentary on the play’s action. In “The Great Society,” Acebo reprises the cleverly flexible device he first introduced for “All the Way” — a horseshoe ring of three concentric raised diases surrounding the central action and backed by cyclorama projections. But, unlike the previous play, this time the tidy, symmetrical dais lay-out is systematically demolished, bit by bit, from one act to the next. By the end of the play, the stage — like the dream of a just and confident Great American Society — is a smoldering shambles.
That smash-up unfolds onstage over the course of three hours (with two intermissions). But the drama never palled and my attention never flagged. Nor, seemingly, did anyone else’s in the packed house, neither the youngsters’ nor the oldsters’. Still, if three hours is not enough of a theater marathon for you — or if you can’t make it up to Ashland by the end of October — you get another crack at the play in December at the Seattle Repertory Theater, which commissioned Part Two of the Shenkkan diptych. In fact, you can see both “All the Way” and “The Great Society” back to back there in a seven hour binge with the original OSF cast. Be prepared for some laughs and some enlightenment. But also bring your crying towel.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.