Reckoning with the fact that Black Lives Matter. Arm-twisting to get legislation passed. Preparing for possible shenanigans at the upcoming convention.
Although it sounds a lot like 2016, it’s 1964. Lyndon Johnson has become President following the assassination of John F. Kennedy several months earlier. High stakes and high jinks have charged the air with enough electricity to light up the nation’s capital. And that’s just the start of All The Way, the great play that is to politics what a backstage story is to showbiz. The behind the curtain machinations make for an insider’s view of history. In a town full of such folks, this should play well.
Boy, does it ever.
Jack Willis reprises the role he originated, playing LBJ as a physically formidable, wily politician who took no crap, wasn’t above strong-arm tactics, and was determined to have his way. The good news is that “his way” included passing the Civil Rights Act, among other benevolent policies. Johnson could have conversations with both Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover in the same day, and it’s a testament to his people skills that he could navigate his way around, over and through such disparate personalities.
Willis, a veteran of the stage, commands the material with both conviction and ease. The role demands an agile comedic touch to ride shotgun with the super serious—a task performed seamlessly.
A large ensemble of gifted actors move in and out of the story, most of them playing real life characters; Bowman Wright, so compelling as MLK in The Mountaintop, gets to explore King at a very different moment in his life, and the subtle adjustments in style from that play to this one are remarkable.
Set Designer Kate Edmunds has put together a simple and clean Oval Office (among other locations). It’s sleek, not fussy. Suspended TV monitors show pivotal scenes in black & white—a nice touch.
All The Way does such an admirable job of showing us how LBJ was, that you only wish it showed more of why he was—surely an impossible job for Playwright Robert Schenkkan (or anyone), who nevertheless gives us a couple of moving moments that go beyond the outward persona.
You don’t have to be a politico to enjoy All The Way, but having even a passing interest in the way they make the sausage in this town will make the experience all the more enriching.
All The Way continues at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through May 8th. For more information and tickets, please visit: www.arenastage.org