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LBJ-playsSeattle’s  Repertory Theatre has invested a lot in Robert Schenkkan; they commissioned and produced his first Pulitzer-Prize winning play, The Kentucky Cycle. Now, they’ve most recently commissioned his latest works, a two-part play on the Presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. First produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, both plays are now on this season’s agenda at the Rep; All the Way is now running through January 4. Its sequel, The Great Society, runs December 5, also until January.

This first one focuses on LBJ from the Kennedy assassination until his election as President in 1964. The Great Society is LBJ’s term until he left office in 1968, after declining to run for re-election. We saw All the Way, and look forward to seeing the second half in December.

We had the luck to sit beside one of the Rep’s Board of Trustees, and he was quite excited about these plays. Both plays are selling well, he said, and the Rep’s heavy investment in this show seems to be paying off. With a cast of 17 playing more than five dozen characters, it’s also the most ambitious show they’ve put on in quite a while.

All the Way is a complex play, with a lot of actors coming and going, covering a lot of ground but Schenkkan knows how to keep all the characters identified and well-delineated even if they come and go fast. Of course, both Handsome Half and I knew who all the players are: this isn’t history we saw; it was our memories. (It’s only history if it happened before you remember it ;}). Shenkkan mined Robert Caro’s biographies of LBJ as his source material. He had a lot to work from, and he chose well.

It takes a strong center of gravity to hold a cast of this size together, and here the play has a winner: Jack Willis, as LBJ himself. Brian Cranston won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production. We never saw that, but Willis is certainly up to the task himself. Johnson was the consummate wheeler-dealer, doing everything he could to get what he wanted, including threatening and bullying. The central story here is him getting the Civil Rights Act passed and still managing to be elected President. What he had to do to accomplish that surpasses even what Lincoln had to do for the 13th Amendment (this story echoes the recent film Lincoln in many ways). Trouble is that LBJ couldn’t always turn off his bullying, often turning on his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

As a side note here, I never realized the breadth of LBJ’s ego until I realized that he gave his immediate family his initials–Lynda Bird Johnson, Luci Baines Johnson and, of course, Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson became Lady Bird Johnson. I mean, I knew their names already, but the why never sunk in until I saw this play.

The relevance of this 50-year-old story cannot be understated. A key plot point is the seating of Black delegates from Mississippi; they can’t vote in their home state and they’re the wrong race, but LBJ pushes–hard–to get them represented. He succeeds and Southern Democrats pull out of the party, setting up the political coalitions still in play today.

Three young men, two white and one black, are murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. LBJ calls in the Federal government to investigate, prompting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (effectively played by Kennajuan Bentley) to remark, “All the colored people get killed trying to vote, and it only takes two white boys to die for you to call in the FBI?” Almost sounds like a quote from last week’s newspaper.

And, like Spielberg’s Lincoln, the most significant take-away is the difficulty a President has in getting legislation passed. No matter how altruistic or “right” it might be, the process has always been bogged down by pettiness, bickering, egos and politics.

This production has been brought to Seattle as an associated production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, making the plays more cost-effective to mount, and the production values are first-rate. OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch is the director and he keeps the story moving and the dialog flowing and snappy. In the wrong hands, the story would stampede all across the stage. Rauch keeps everything like a cattle drive. Scene Designer Christopher Acebo, Costume Designer Deborah M. Dryden, Lighting Designer David Weiner, Video designer (a timeline keeps appearing on a rear screen, a countdown to election day) Shawn Sagrady, composer/Sound designer Paul James Pendergast…all deserve recognition for their skills, and all from OSF.

The supporting cast (likewise from down south) is huge also and many play multiple parts. It’s a tribute to Schenkkan and Rauch’s skills that the characters are so identifiable, and to all the actors that the cast is so memorable. Performances of note (besides Willis and Bentley) are Terri McMahon’s Lady Bird Johnson, as a confused Southern belle as plastic as a Barbie doll but who can still arise to whatever is demanded of her. Peter Frechette’s Hubert Humphrey is a complex mixture of vacillating wuss and shrewd negotiator. I never realized, either, the contempt JBL had for HHH, but still the integrity to keep his word to the Senator and make him his running mate. Richard Elmore’s J. Edgar Hoover hits the right slimy note, and brings one of the comic highlights of the show when the infamous closet case tries to describe to LBJ how gay men recognize each other.

All the Way is a history lesson; a civics lesson; a biography as riveting as anything those English Tudors ever came up with; and great theater. All the Way delivers on all cylinders and I can’t wait until December 7 to see how it ends.

Of course, we know how it ends. But in the great hands of all the talent at the Rep, it’ll still be gripping and suspenseful. Buy tickets now, since these two shows will most definitely sell out fast.

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