Friday, September 20, 2013

"All The Way" at The American Repertory Theater - A Winner By Acclamation

The Loeb Drama Center was abuzz with anticipation last evening as patrons of the arts, civil rights leaders, politicians, academics and regular citizens convened to see how the latest A.R.T. production would portray the enigmatic Lyndon Baines Johnson.  The level of excitement was further ratcheted up by the fact that the role of LBJ was being played by Bryan Cranston, late of "Breaking Bad" fame.  Governor Deval Patrick was there, as was Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the definitive biography of LBJ.

It did not take long for us to realize why the advance reports about this play, receiving its East Coast premiere, were so enthusiastic.  The entire run of the play has already sold out (check the A.R.T. link below to learn about some standing room availability.)

American Repertory Theater Events

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, "All The Way" chronicles the first year of LBJ's "accidental presidency" following the Dallas assassination of JFK.  The writing is simply brilliant - simultaneously elegant and raw, much like the protagonist.  LBJ was a colossal figure of Shakespearean stature as he stood upon the American political stage.  He was no less colossal in the portrayal of him presented last evening on this historic Cambridge stage.  Schenkkan has captured the ethos and inherent conflicts of the man and the political animal who became our nation's 36th President.  Under the inspired direction of Bill Rauch, returning to Harvard where he cut his directorial teeth as an undergrad at Harvard College, the play unfolds in a way that struggles brilliantly to answer at multiple levels the over-arching question: "What does LBJ want out of life?"   

In an opening scene, the newly elevated President is being measured for some new clothing, and he specifies that the tailor should leave extra room "in the bung hole" and in the crotch so he can move comfortably.  How appropriate.  From the outset, we have the crudeness of LBJ on display, as well as his personal desire to have room to maneuver without overly constricting hindrance from the likes of Lady Bird, Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover or Congress.  And the role seems "tailored made"  for the protean acting talents of Bryan Cranston.  He is simply magisterial in his command of the role - and of the stage.  He shines brightly, yet does not in any way overshadow the rest of the impressive cast.  Each role has been careful cast with actors who bring their A game to each scene.

The set is cleverly and beautifully wrought by Christopher Acebo.  As needed, it evokes the House or Senate Chamber, the Oval Office, a church, the floor of the Democratic Convention, and a hotel room.  As with all good A.R.T. productions, aisles and walkways are used by the actors in ways that heighten the dramatic effect.  The overall effect is greatly enhanced by Jane Cox's lighting design, Paul James Prendergast's sound design, and Shawn Sagady's projections.  The action of the play is sometimes set at center stage, often in the corners of the set, and  - in one stunning scene - down an aisle in the midst of the audience.  As the actions moves around the set, the look and feel of the blocking and staging reminded me very much of the way in which the various political  factions were portrayed in the film "Lincoln."

There are several motifs that emerge and recur throughout the two acts of this a play:
  • LBJ's ability to put the "Texas twist" on those he wanted to influence or needed to intimidate.  His ability to get politicians of all stripes to acquiesce to his wishes was legendary.
  •  The tension between his desire to support Civil Rights and the desire not to be perceived as beholden to MLK or other Civil Rights leaders.
  • His cyclical tendency to feel paranoia and to respond as if "nobody loves me."
  • His desire to be seen as more than just "the accidental President."
  • The need to establish himself on his own and move out of the shadow of JFK
  • The growing specter of the conflict in Vietnam.
  • The nature of compromise - the line between personal morality and the greater good.
A lingering image that will stay with me is presented during Act II.  A body has been exhumed in Mississippi, and although LBJ is depicted on stage as being in a different place, the juxtaposition of the grave and LBJ makes it appear as if the body has been laid at his feet.  The stunning image is emblematic both of the bodies of those who died during times of racial strife in the U.S., and foreshadowing the bodies of those who will eventually die in Southeast Asia.  It is a thrilling and chilling moment in the play, for that singular image unites two important components of Johnson's presidency - Civil Rights and Vietnam.

Among the gifted cast, several actors deserve special mention.  Many of the cast members play multiple roles.
  • Betsy Aidem is Lady Bird Johnson and Katherine Graham.  She shines in a scene when she finally stands up to her bullying husband, and confronts and comforts him.
  • Reed Birney is both Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond.  He channels "The Happy Warrior" with remarkable sensitivity.
  • Dan Butler plays George Wallace, Walter Reuther, et al.  His versatility is remarkable.  I had no idea until I re-read the program that the same actor had played both roles.
  • J. Bernard Calloway is the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.  I knew Rev. Abernathy personally, and seeing Calloway on stage in this role made me believe that MLK's right hand man had come back to life.
  • Crystal A. Dickinson is very believable as Coretta Scott King and as the "illiterate" Mississippi delegate Fannie Lou Hamer.
  • Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King, Jr. shares much of the limelight with Mr. Cranston's LBJ. The two figures are like two satellites orbiting around each other, both repelling and attracting.  Mr. Dirden's eloquence and range of emotion are highlights of this production.
  • Peter Jay Fernandez as Roy Wilkins represents the cautious end of the Civil Rights movement spectrum, often seen in sharp contrast to the firebrand young leaders such as . . .
  • Stokely Carmichael played with appropriate rage by William Jackson Harper.
  • Dakin Matthews carves an impressive figure as Senator Richard Russell, with whom LBJ was often at loggerheads.
  • Michael McKean played J.Edgar Hoover convincingly without resorting to camp stereotyping.
  • Christopher Liam Moore painted a sympathetic portrait of LBJ's long-suffering and conflicted aid, Walter Jenkins.
  • Richard Poe was memorable as the orotund Senator Everett Dirksen.
Let me add a couple of small personal notes that will indicate why my evening at the A.R.T. was so special.  During intermission, I had two encounters that added to my enjoyment of the occasion.
  • I re-connected with Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom I had met on several earlier occasions.  When I asked her how she was enjoying the play, and how the writing jibed with her personal knowledge of LBJ, she gushed about how accurate and moving she was finding the play to be.
  • As I returned to my seat, a gentleman was waiting to take his seat near mine.  I asked him how he thought the play was going, and he made some brief positive remarks.  Then he asked me what I thought: "I am loving it.  I am struck by how much the look and feel of the play reminds me of the way in which Lincoln's political colleagues were depicted in the film 'Lincoln.'"  He replied: "That is really interesting you should say that.  I am Bill Rauch, the Director.  When I saw 'Lincoln' with several of my friends, we exclaimed, 'They have filmed our play!'"
"All The Way" is clearly one of the best plays of this young theater season in Boston.  It gets my vote, and got the vote of last night's audience - by acclamation.  Every member of the audience was quick to leap to their feet for the curtain call.  I predict that this play will go "all the way" - to Broadway!



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