All the Way
Also see Nancy's review of The Jungle Book
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, considered the father of theater criticism, wrote of the essential elements of drama in his seminal work "Poetics." Plot is of the utmost importance, followed by character, theme and dialogue. Furthermore, he tells us that plays seek to develop a character through his actions and speech, and that drama is the epitome of showing, not telling. If the ancient Greek were somehow able to be among the members of the Fourth Estate at the opening night of All the Way at the American Repertory Theater, I think he would have been favorably impressed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's masterful opus and three-time Emmy Award-winner Bryan Cranston's tour de force performance as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
A towering tragic figure, LBJ became President of the United States following the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in late November 1963, finally attaining the office he had failed to win for himself. All the Way begins with Johnson returning from Dallas to Washington, DC, on Air Force One to make his first address to Congress as the new Commander-in-Chief and chronicles the 341-day period leading up to his defeat of Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Schenkkan parades dozens of relevant historical characters across the stage, the men and women who interacted with the President, to bring to life the incredible journey that LBJ and the nation experienced together in that momentous year.
Taking the helm as he did for the world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, director Bill Rauch guides the large cast (17) seamlessly through countless scenes as most of them quickly change from one character to another (Cranston and Brandon J. Dirden as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., are the only members of the cast who play just one role), sometimes merely sitting in the onstage pews as witnesses to the action. Some of the performances that stand out include Dirden, Christopher Liam Moore (Walter Jenkins, top aide to LBJ), Reed Birney (Senator Hubert Humphrey, Senator Strom Thurmond), Dakin Matthews (Senator Richard Russell), and Michael McKean (J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Robert Byrd).
However, the entire ensemble is outstanding, although they have less exposure. Dan Butler makes us remember Governor George Wallace's opportunistic campaign and conveys the quandary that journalist Joseph Alsop found himself in after a meeting with Hoover. No one would ever confuse the personalities of Lady Bird Johnson and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, but Betsy Aidem shows their different strengths and personalities. Portraying members of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, J. Bernard Calloway (Reverend Ralph Abernathy), Ethan Phillips (Stanley Levison), and William Jackson Harper (James Harrison, Stokely Carmichael), and leaders of other civil rights groups (including Peter Jay Fernandez as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Eric Lenox Abrams as Congress of Racial Equality leader David Dennis), these five actors give thoughtful, committed and energetic performances to illustrate that the African American demographic would not be taken lightly.
Cranston is not as physically imposing as Johnson, but he strikes a formidable figure and is nonetheless commanding in the role. LBJ was a master of the art of the deal and, after years of serving in the Senate, the relationships he had forged with his colleagues enabled him to pass landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation. Throughout the process, Cranston strokes and slaps, sweet talks and cajoles, and frequently erupts to great effect, demonstrating the many sides of the mercurial leader. When he ignores the fourth wall and speaks at the audience, it simulates a televised speech being broadcast into the living rooms across the nation and draws us closer into the action. Our involvement is heightened when Mississippi civil rights protestors brandishing picket signs fill the aisles of the theater.
Set designer Christopher Acebo arranges tiered wooden pews in a semi-circle, which works well to represent the chambers of Congress and church locales. Johnson is usually seated at a large desk center stage or standing behind a podium bearing the presidential seal. Small areas of the stage are lit by lighting designer Jane Cox to separate scenes in hotel rooms or restaurants, and background projections by Shawn Sagady often clarify the historical moment or offer the view from the window of the Oval Office. Costume designer Deborah M. Dryden appropriately tailors the men's suits and ties to the style of the '60s, while suggesting a more casual appearance for the younger civil rights organizers. Paul James Prendergast handles sound design and the dialect coach is Rebecca Clark Carey.
While some lines are taken from historical documents, it bears stating that All the Way is a dramatization, albeit a darn good one, and the gestalt captures the feel of the period in riveting fashion. We know the outcome of the civil rights legislation, the election and how things developed in Vietnam, each of which receive plenty of attention in the play, yet the behind-the-scenes maneuvering builds dramatically and is fascinating to witness. There is a degree of nostalgia at play, longing for the good old days when Democrats and Republicans were able to find common ground, or at least give ground for the common good. Even with a running time of approximately three hours, the pace of All the Way never drags and I wished that it didn't have to end. If I had to trim my review to only four words, I know exactly what they'd be, with heavy emphasis on the last word: This. Is. A. Play.
All the Way, performances through October 12 at American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org. Written by Robert Schenkkan; Director, Bill Rauch; Set Design, Christopher Acebo; Costume Design, Deborah M. Dryden; Lighting Design, Jane Cox; Composer/Sound Design, Paul James Prendergast; Projections, Shawn Sagady; Dramaturg, Tom Bryant; Dialect Coach, Rebecca Clark Carey; Casting, Telsey + Company, William Cantler, CSA; Associate Director, Emily Sophia Knapp; Production Stage Manager, Matthew Farrell
Cast (in order of speaking): Bryan Cranston, Betsy Aidem, Christopher Liam Moore, Susannah Schulman, Reed Birney, Dakin Matthews, Michael McKean, Arnie Burton, Brandon J. Dirden, J. Bernard Calloway, Ethan Phillips, William Jackson Harper, Richard Poe, Crystal A. Dickinson, Dan Butler, Peter Jay Fernandez, Eric Lenox Abrams