Robert Schenkkan, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for his 1992 play, The Kentucky Cycle, uses the social upheaval of the 1960s to mine material for his cycle of Lyndon Baines Johnson plays. So far that has elicited All the Way and now the follow-up, The Great Society.
Helmed by Kevin Moriarty, the stage production bounces from political crisis to social crisis populated by historical figures that also perform as members of the play’s ensemble. It’s a tricky ploy to direct so many people walking to and fro within a single set without hearing the creaking of the wooden stage under their pace or having the actors appear at the right moment and not upstaging those speaking dialogue.
Characters include LBJ (Brandon Potter), Lady Bird, Walter Cronkite, Stokley Carmichael, John Lewis, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King, Robert McNamara, George Wallace, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, along with several others. The performers interact on a mostly bare stage surrounded by marble columns with a presidential desk and some moveable chairs.
The opening monologue by LBJ highlights the dynamic approach to the production. The audience is bathed in red light while the president pontificates, an effect that is used to great affect throughout.
While The Great Society covers a period of five years, the Civil Rights March in Selma takes up well-deserved space. The march itself and the John Lewis character (then a civil rights activist and now a U.S. Representative from Georgia) draw apt parallels to the contemporary political situation. It was Lewis who compared Trump to Wallace before the inauguration and became one of the first targets for the new president’s twitter thumbs.
Events unfold with bold lightning cues, split-second timing and flashy exposition. It’s hard not to feel more than a tinge of emotion during a fantastically staged finale that has one party leaving the White House and another party moving in, complete with an explosive blast of confetti that wouldn’t be out of place at a rock concert.
All the Way had a successful run on Broadway and an even more impressive cable movie that starred Brian Cranston as LBJ. The Great Society seems destined for even greater glory.