By Tristan Lejeune
Lyndon Baines Johnson is considered perhaps the most effective legislative president in history, but it’s easy to forget that one of his signature achievements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was woven and passed into law under heavy fire as Johnson fought to win an election in the anxious days after JFK’s assassination.
Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning play All the Way, now at Arena Stage, examines that heady year, from November to November, and the swirling political climate that produced what is essentially still the modern electoral map. It’s a frisky and intelligent peak at a fledgling presidency firing on all cylinders, but at times it bites off just a little more than its two-and-a-half-hour runtime allows it to chew, necessitating dialogue in which characters blankly state their motivations and feelings in ways that no one, let alone politicians, ever do.
The script comes ready-made for theatregoers who want their commanders in chief adept at Underwood-ian arm twisting (Jack Willis’s foul-mouthed LBJ even bellows that he’s not a placeholder president) and Lincoln-esque horse-trading. This production, directed by Kyle Donnelly, has some of its finest moments in those scenes as Willis schmoozes journalists, placates activists, and puts the screws to leading congressmen. You’d almost think Johnson cashed in every favor he had to get the Act through.
Willis isn’t nearly as tall as the 6-foot-4-inch 36th president (but then neither is Bryan Cranston, who debuted the role on Broadway and takes it to the small screen on HBO next month), but he has a small-town Texas accent straight out of Greater Tuna (a big compliment) and a wonderful mean glare that says this is a leader who would rather be feared than loved.
First among equals in the solid supporting cast is Richard Clodfelter’s Vice President Humphrey, a calm voice in the storm and a decent man at the table who finds himself disillusioned before the end of the Democratic convention. Richmond Hoxie’s J. Edgar Hoover is all oily paranoia, Cameron Folmar’s George Wallace brims with Alabama bluster, and David Bishin’s Robert McNamara is the Angel of Death, pointing a grim finger at the looming Vietnam War, destined to end the Johnson White House.
A+ to Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s ’60s costumes, which are authentic without being Mad Men-flashy. It feels like we’ve found these historical figures in their living rooms; Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler Stage is indeed a natural fit for the Oval Office.
A fully realistic version of this play would have to be several month’s long, or at least as long as it takes to read a volume of Robert Caro’s universally acclaimed, multi-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. All the Way covers parts of the same time as book four, The Passage of Power, and it has an exciting bite to it, as well that stylish verisimilitude.
The authenticity of both performance and visuals is, however, sometimes undercut by on-the-nose dialogue in which pontification and plot take over.
Every time Martin Luther King, Jr., (Bowman Wright) tells his advisers and colleagues he’s going to hold the president’s feet to the fire, the audience doubts the good reverend was so obvious in private. And First Lady Bird (Susan Rome) sees things others don’t. We know this because she says, I see things others don’t. That’s neither realistic nor particularly insightful, but the characterizations are usually strong enough to pull scenes from the fire.
You don’t have to be an LBJ nut or one of those D.C. history gluttons to enjoy All the Way; its appeal is too universal for that. But you do have to keep in mind that drama, like American democracy, is representative. “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose,” Johnson said. All the Way definitely wins as a night of theatre, but it fails to recover yesterday.