Review: ‘All the Way’ at Arena Stage

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Lyndon Baines Johnson, popularly known as “LBJ,” was one of our best presidents, and also one of our worst. Truly a study in contrasts, he could evince both strength and weakness at the same time. LBJ once said to Congress “We will overcome!” and followed up with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—both of which revolutionized our country. But, while his “war on poverty” was a noble attempt, he was also responsible for what many consider to be the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Americans in Vietnam.

(L to R) Susan Rome (Lady Bird Johnson) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson). Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Susan Rome (Lady Bird Johnson) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Robert Schenkkan’s landmark play All the Way, currently being performed at Arena Stage, shows all sides of the complicated and very significant 36th President of the United States. There is no doubt that history will record LBJ as one of the most important players in our nation’s struggle for civil rights, and the Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright brilliantly explores the psyche of this brooding and complex man.

The ultra-talented Jack Willis portrays LBJ with a deep and penetrating understanding of the role and gives a disciplined, layered, and nuanced performance. In partnership with the impressively credentialed Director Kyle Donnelly, Willis skillfully avoids the temptation to play his part in caricature.  Indeed, when it comes to Lyndon Johnson, there is no need for caricature, because his actual persona was almost literally larger than life!  During the 1960s, stand-up comics and impressionists would try to imitate Johnson’s voice and personality. However, in his bravura performance, Willis does not attempt to imitate, but rather to explicate.

At that time, Johnson was considered to be the most vulgar president in history, although his crude language, insults, and slurs pale by comparison with many of today’s politicians. LBJ’s outward bluster often masked his self-doubt.  He was plagued by demons from his past and unable to let go of his resentment.  For example, he felt that he was treated shabbily when he was Vice-President to the beloved President John F. Kennedy. Most historians agree that his resentment was well-founded and that Kennedy’s choice of Johnson as his running mate was strictly a “marriage of convenience.” LBJ walked a tightrope between his allies and his enemies, with a number of them periodically switching from one category to the other. Willis’ portrayal superbly captures all of these important elements of Johnson’s character—a tough, shrewd, less-than-honest deal maker who broke his promises when he felt the situation called for it, but one who had the courage and the ability to do the right thing.

The play opens just after the assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963, when Johnson became the “accidental president”, and ends one year later with the election of President Johnson—in his own right—in November, 1964.  The events of that turbulent year create a thrilling, exhilarating, real-life drama that forever changed our country’s history.

The action begins with the fight for the Civil Rights Act during which LBJ interacts with many other players, not the least of which is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., splendidly portrayed by Bowman Wright. While Dr. King deplores LBJ’s cynical maneuvering, he sometimes finds himself in a similar situation, trying to achieve compromises with other civil rights activists, and Wright’s ability to deal with King’s internal conflicts is quite extraordinary.

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Bowman Wright (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Bowman Wright (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Another important partner of LBJ is Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, brilliantly played by Richard Clodfelter, as a committed liberal who willingly tolerates the President’s disrespect in hopes of becoming his running mate.  Richmond Hoxie as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover plays a pivotal role throughout the play, as a narcissistic bully in alternating power positions with LBJ.

Even with the challenging assignment of playing multiple roles, the rest of the cast members turn in first-rate performances as a variety of well-known historical figures. At all times, these multi-talented actors play their parts as three-dimensional human beings and not just “names in the news.”

Set Designer Kate Edmunds cleverly uses a rotating, circular stage and the area around it, along with elevated television monitors all around the theatre. The Great Seal of the United States covers the center of the stage, and various set pieces are silently and seamlessly carried on and off the stage by the cast members. From black and white footage of civil rights protests to a large but simple desk and chair in the Oval Office, Edmunds effectively paints a portrait of the early 1960s in all of its diverse locations.

Those of us who were teens and preteens during that eventful time have our own memories of the events depicted in the play. For younger people, All the Way provides a powerful and compelling history lesson—and psychology lesson.

Arena Stage’s stunning production of All the Way is the highlight of this theater season and should not be missed!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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All the Way plays through May 8, 2016 on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

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