Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 6, 2014
All the Way by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Bill Rauch. Scenic design by Christopher Acebo. Costume design by Deborah M. Dryden. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Composer/sound design by Paul James Pendergast. Projection design by Shawn Sagady. Projection Consultant Wendall K. Harrington. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Sound Consultant Peter Fitzgerald. Cast: Bryan Cranston, Eric Lenox Abrams, Betsy Aidem, J. Bernard Calloway, Rob Campbell, Brandon J. Dirden, James Eckhouse, Peter Jay Fernandez, Christopher Gurr, William Jackson Harper, Michael McKean, John McCmartin, Christopher Liam Moore, Robert Petkoff, Ethan Phillips, Richard Poe, Roslyn Ruff, Susannah Schulman, Bill Timoney, Steve Vinovich, Tony Carlin, Gina Daniels, Danny Johnson, Monette Magrath.
That matters a lot during this chronicle of Johnson's first year in office, beginning immediately after his swearing-in following the death of John F. Kennedy and ending just after he secures re-election. (Is that a spoiler? I'm going with no.) Cranston summons up exactly the dusty fire that can rightfully be associated with any Texan firebrand such as Johnson, and paints the man as both an expert politicker along the lines of House of Cards' Frank Underwood and a somewhat more sympathetic figure who knows all too well the costs of the bargains he's forced to make.
Never, though, does Cranston let a flicker of doubt pass across Johnson's face. He projects unflagging faith in the president's abilities to move the mountains of political thought, and uses that position as the starting point for his entire character. It absolutely works, even if — or perhaps especially if — you start wondering, during Johnson's occasional asides to the audience, whether he's actually playing you, too. Are you just another constituent to be lied to? A tentative vote to be swayed? Or are you really the cherished confidant he behaves as though you are? As with any politician, there's no way to know for sure, but regardless, you're always at ease.
It's reassuring that the monumental center Cranston gives you something to constantly believe in, because that's otherwise seldom on offer here. If Schenkkan has crafted an extraordinary star vehicle and a provocative look at Johnson, he's come up short in most other departments that would also let it be a compelling play. Schenkkan doesn't shy away from Johnson's crudities of thought and language, but he's neglected to give you much in the way of layers or balance, which are good things to have in any play that tackles someone or something controversial.
In Schenkkan's treatment, Johnson is nothing more and nothing less than an unwavering crusader for Civil Rights; his own complex background with the question, including his part in killing a 1957 version of the bill, merits at best tacit acknowledgment. Worse, the world outside this limited bubble, whether the focus is on domestic or international policy matters, is scarcely to be found, and the 1963-1964 time frame precludes the possibility of addressing other Johnson-supported issues (immigration, the various components of the Great Society) that inspire paint-peeling debate between political factions yet today. If the point is to present a portrait of Johnson as a great mover-and-shaker, it falls short; juggling one thing at a time isn't so tough. And a lack of details means it's hardly better as an in-depth recap of a critical turning point in race relations.
The best supporting performances come from Brandon J. Dirden as King, Rob Campbell as Wallace, Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey, and Christopher Liam Moore as Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, though everyone in the 20-person company — which also notably includes John McMartin as Southern Senator Richard Russell, Michael McKean as a scheming J. Edgar Hoover, and J. Bernard Calloway as top King adviser Ralph Abernathy — is excellent. Director Bill Rauch, who heads the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the play premiered in 2012 (before playing at A.R.T. in Boston with Cranston last summer), ensures that they and designers Deborah M. Dryden (costumes), Jane Cox (lights), and Shawn Sagady (projections) contribute to a vivid mid-20th-century Beltway texture, and that the action always proceeds with astonishing swiftness.
But because All the Way fails to capture the depth and the unique social fabric of the contentious time it documents, that undeniable energy often seems to be misapplied. Under normal circumstances, the play would struggle to find its way into your consciousness, something marginally interesting for its informational value but too flat in its treatment to give you good reason to retain it for long. A more thoughtful, intricate treatment of the complicated Johnson, his policies, and his views would make better theater and vastly superior history, but Cranston, by sheer force of will, ensures that at least isolated instances of this black-and-white news report appear in vibrant color.