Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Great Society
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of La Rondine, Understood, Sometimes There's Wine, The Agitators, and The Visit


Pearce Bunting and Shawn Hamilton
Photo by Scott Paudaitis
After Lyndon Baines Johnson became the president of the United States following the horrific assassination of John F. Kennedy, in November, 1963, tremendous good will toward our nation's fallen leader was on his side and LBJ's legendary skill brokering deals in the U.S. senate pushed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 into law. On its heels, Johnson ran for a full term presidency in 1964, with the campaign slogan "All the Way with LBJ." Johnson scored a landslide victory, but the Civil Rights Act cost the Democratic Party its century-long hold on the southern states, a status that continues to this day.

Playwright Robert Schenkkan seized upon that pivotal year in America's story to write All the Way. The play won the 2014 Tony Award for best new play, was produced as an HBO film, and led Schenkkan to write a The Great Society, a sequel chronicling Johnson's eventful 1964-1968 term in office.

The Great Society is now having its first Minnesota run at the History Theatre where All the Way enjoyed a successful run a year ago. The sequel's title refers to the raft of social programs Johnson launched to end the persistence of poverty in the United States and to advance the nation beyond its status quo toward true greatness, with support for the arts, public broadcasting, civic engagement, environmental protection, and more. The Great Society picks up where All the Way left off. Johnson, dubbed "landslide Lyndon," gloats as he shapes a national agenda of epic magnitude. Then, two issues flare up that undermine Johnson's hold on the nation: the continued battle for civil rights and the escalating war in Vietnam.

The Great Society chronicles the persistent leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, first pushing Johnson for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, then shifting focus from the south to urban America. Some impatient activists splinter into a new movement under the banner of Black Power, diverting attention from Johnson's ambitious domestic agenda. LBJ professes support for urban African Americans, but the newly strident movement and riots in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit make it hard for him to push reform through a congress increasingly concerned about law and order on the streets.

When Johnson inherited the war in Vietnam it did not yet involve U.S. ground troops and U.S. losses were fairly low. The Great Society shows him agreeing, against his better judgement, to a series of increases toward a large scale engagement of the U.S. in an offensive war against North Vietnam. At regular intervals, the number of Americans killed and wounded is stated, underscoring the growing national nightmare. Schenkkan portrays Johnson as somewhat of a victim, unable to cast off an initially popular stand against Communism until it is too late to turn back with honor. This may be a revisionist view of the war, but it is nonetheless fascinating to eavesdrop on conversations between LBJ, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and General William Westmoreland, to see each successive decision as a link in a chain that yields tragic consequences. Aside from the toll in lives, the escalating cost of the war erodes funds for LBJ's Great Society programs. In solitude and with his loyal wife, Lady Bird, Johnson is seen having profound doubts, quite likely for the first time in his life.

The Great Society is a well-crafted play, replete with historic events, remembered and forgotten. Still, it has not enjoyed the same level of success as All the Way. It has not had a major New York production, nor been made into a film. Unlike the first play, which covers a single year with a short, intense and focused trajectory, The Great Society chronicles four years jammed with events of historic import, an enormous amount of content that requires swift forward motion with little time for nuance. Director Ron Peluso handles the rapid pace well, maintaining a sense of an electric current surging non-stop through LBJ's presidency. It is always exciting and always conveys a sense of urgency. However, the heavy load it carries does not allow for looking at these complex and still relevant issues with much depth. It feels like the overload many of us experience today with the 24/7 news cycle dumping out more upheavals than we can possible learn about on a daily basis.

Lyndon Johnson, as the center of the storm in this epic, is the only character fully developed. Schenkkan offers insights into what motivates LBJ—a desire for power and a wish to leave a long and cherished legacy, yes. But other elements—such as his childhood poverty, hard conditions of life in rural Texas, and time as a school teacher—suggest a genuine desire to right the ills of the nation.

Pearce Bunting returns from All the Way (as does most of the cast) as Johnson. He beautifully captures the numerous facets of this complex man. LBJ is smart, folksy, charming, bruising, can sweet talk anyone's grandma and can swear a senior senator down to the ground. He is bedeviled by the letters he must write to the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam, but able to sabotage a visiting delegation from the American Medical Society into claiming to support his Medicare plan (they strongly opposed it) at a full news conference. Bunting captures Johnson's well-known gestures, facial tics and posturing, along with the Texas twang. His performance is truly a master class in acting.

Only two other actors are not double cast, and their roles are crucial. Andrew Erskine Wheeler plays LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey. For a good length of time, Humphrey shows backbone, speaking up (albeit, on Johnson's deaf ears) for what is right, until, being cut out by an angered Johnson, he bends in order to regain favor. Wheeler captures Humphrey's staunch values and sense of fairness, and, later, the inner voices he must repress in order to be a winner in the harsh game of politics. It is a hard performance to watch, knowing that Humphrey's decision to remain in Johnson's shadow, even through his 1968 campaign for president, may well have put Richard Nixon in the White House. It is Wheeler's superb performance that makes this discomfort so real. Shawn Hamilton as Dr. Martin Luther King creates a persuasive image of the great leader and his stirring oratory. Hamilton breathes life into King's struggles between the political realities of pushing through change, the need to stand as an unshakable leader for his community, and to prevent the movement from splintering between those faithful to non-violence and those ready to take more aggressive actions to bring about change.

The entire large ensemble—17 actors in all, playing 43 roles—is top notch. Standouts include Jamila Anderson as Sally Childress, Johnson's loyal secretary who makes a tremendous sacrifice, and as a strong-spined Coretta Scott King; Jennifer Blagen as Lady Bird Johnson, effectively able to absorb the mercurial shifts in her husband's temperament; Randy Schmeling, who projects Bobby Kennedy's look, cadence, drive and sincerity; J.C. Cutler, whose depiction of J. Edgar Hoover's legendary duplicity is appropriately disturbing; Eric Knutson as Robert McNamara, lending tragic irony to a numbers man driven by facts to wage an ever larger war until realization of its cost in human terms turns his unalterable facts into malleable beliefs; and Darrick Mosley, making the simmering rage behind Stokely Carmichael's shift to an aggressive Black Power stance both believable and understandable.

Kathy Maxwell's video footage is an essential element of The Great Society. Images of the White House and the U.S. Capital, and clips from Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, troop movements in Vietnam, anti-war protests on the National Mall, the rioting in Watts, and other scenes reinforce a connection between the on-stage drama and the world in which it occurred. Barry Browning's lighting design and C. Andrew Meyer's sound design add even further to the sense that we are experiencing the authenticity of these events.

With The Great Society, as well as with All the Way, History Theatre departs from its usual work that focuses on Minnesota and the upper midwest. We are grateful for that departure in these cases. Both plays draw on a national canvas, with epic themes that relay our recent history to help us understand the position we are in today. In one hundred years, a Shakespeare might draft this saga into history plays that read like mythology, but we are fortunate to have a work like The Great Society appear when there is still smoke rising from the truth it reveals and reflects.

The Great Society , through October 28, 2018, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults: $25.00 - $56.00; Seniors (age 60 and up): $25.00 - $51.00; Adults under Age 30: $25.00 - $30.00; Students 5 – 18: $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Playwright: Robert Schenkkan; Director: Ron Peluso Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Wig Design: Robert A. Dunn; Properties Designer: Kirby Moore; Dramaturg: Kate Sandvik; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Manager: Laurie Flanigan Hegge.

Cast: Bruce Abas (Adam Walinksy/Stanley Levison/Ackley/Morrison), Jamila Anderson (Sally Childress/Coretta Scott King), Jennifer Blagen (Lady Bird Johnson/waitress/protester/newscaster), Pearce Bunting (Lyndon Baines Johnson), Josh Carson (George Wallace/Clark Clifford), Ron Collier (Bob Moses/John Lewis/Fr. Clements/Rev. Dobynes), J. C. Cutler (J. Edgar Hoover/Richard Nixon), Shawn Hamilton (Dr. Martin Luther King), Rex Isom Jr. (Ralph Abernathy/Adam Clayton Powell/Hosea Williams), Song Kim (California police/Trammel/General Wheeler/cameraman), Eric Knutson (Robert McNamara/ Wilbur Mills), Patty Matthews (Muriel Humphrey/Pat Nixon/sheriff's auxiliary), Darrick Mosley (Stokely Carmichael/Jimmie Jackson/Rev. Bevel), Randy Schmeling (Robert Kennedy/Chicago cop), Jefferson Slinkard (Everett Dirksen/ "Deke" DeLoach/Col. Lingo), Peter Thomson (Richard Daley/General Westmoreland), Andrew Erskine Wheeler (Hubert H. Humphrey).


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