Review: ‘The Great Society’ at Asolo Rep Theatre

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All The Way by Robert Schenkkan dealt with Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to influence the 88th U.S. congress to vote in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It first appeared in 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and reached Broadway in 2014. There it won awards as Outstanding Play as well as a Tony for Brian Cranston’s performance as LBJ.

Now the Asolo Rep in Florida brings us what amounts to a sequel, a second play about President Johnson and his four turbulent years as an elected President following his year as an inductee on the death of President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Schenkkan has chosen to write more of a documentary than a proper play, for he is dealing with dozens of prominent participants.

A.K.Murtadha (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Matt DeCaro (Lyndon Baines Johnson). Photo by John Revisky.

Splashed about in chronological order beginning in 1964 are Dr. Martin Luther King, Senator Bobby Kennedy, Governor George Wallace, Ladybird Johnson and Coretta King, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Chicago’s  Mayor Dailey, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Nixon, and so many others. To tell the story of the Civil Right battles as well as the battle to achieve a greater America, a “Great Society” his play is somewhat overwhelmed. None of these familiar characters has a chance to do more than sprout snippets of speeches, with many of which we are familiar, if we were alive and paying any attention when first they were spoken.

To those too young to remember, they will seem startling, but taken out of context in such great numbers  they tend  to meld  into one loud rant. All of it is interesting, but even at just under  three hours playing time, there isn’t room for much nuance or character development or subtext. Time and again two or three, or a panel full of Blacks and Whites, Conservatives and Liberals, Men and Women, hurl invectives at each other to plead their various causes.

A  David Grubin film documentary has tackled this material with the advantage that film captures the accurate images and of course allows the principals  to be played by themselves. To manage the huge cast of characters (there are over 40 principal roles) a company of 26 actors must often play 2 or 3 of them in addition to playing ensemble roles when needed for crowd scenes. At times it leads to confusion.

Matt DeCaro, Brett Mack, A.K. Murtadha, Mikael Kinsey, Denise Cormier, and others all play with great conviction. Director Nicole A. Watson has based her work on the staging of Bill Rauch when the play was first performed five years ago and it moves with constant  smoothness as stagehands as well as actors scurry about moving couches, tables, sound, and lighting equipment throughout the many short scenes that fill the play’s three acts.

The parallels between then and now in the political arena are vividly in evidence. With no  disrespect intended to this well intentioned effort, an attempt to “tell it all” is overly ambitious. Again and again as I watched this fervent lecture on what Mr. Johnson tried to accomplish I was reminded that there just wasn’t time or space to tell it all, so what emerged was crowded and rushed. Mr. Johnson himself shared his vision with students at Ohio University in May of 1964. He told them his Great Society is:

where no child will go unfed, no youngster will go unschooled, no man who wants work will fail to find it, where no citizen will be barred from any door because of his birthplace or his  color or his church, where peace and security is common among neighbors and possible among nations.

The play includes many incidents beginning with that speech, and taking us through the assassination of Malcolm X, the sending of the first ground troops to Vietnam, the passing of the voting rights act in 1965, mass protest rioting in Chicago, later riots in Detroit, Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968, and Robert Kennedy’s assassination later that year, and so much more. For this brave and bold attempt by the estimable Asolo Rep Company, a big A for Effort.

The Great Society plays through at April 2, 2017, at Asolo Repertory Theatre – 5555 North Tamiami Trail, in Sarasota, Florida. For tickets, call the box office at (941) 351-8000, or purchase them online.

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