Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida
"Did it make you a little squeamish?
If the above sounds very contemporary and is confirming your views about a certain president with orange-ish hair, think again. The president described above signed some of the most far-reaching, liberal-leaning acts in history, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This proponent of equal rights for all and of the Great Society was, of course, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In the Palo Alto Players' magnificently produced, local premiere of Robert Schenkkan's 2014 Tony Award winning Best Play, All the Way, we as an audience are challenged to ask ourselves if such questionable tactics of a nation's leader are ever acceptable if the desired outcomes match our own sense of social and economic justice. Is this in fact "how new things are born" in D.C. politics, and is it the "ends" that truly matter and not so much "the means"?If so, do many of us who detest the current president's manners and tactics do so not because of what those means are, but because we actually do not agree with his desired outcomes?
Through dozens of scenes flowing from one to another on every corner of its stage, Palo Alto Players entertains and educates us with a fascinating, spellbinding, live documentary of the events and personalities between November 22, 1963, when an assassin's bullet elevated Johnson into the West Wing, and November 3, 1964, when he won the office with 61.1% of the popular vote. The steps that enwrap a stage designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke could either be those of the U.S. Capitol or even those of the Roman Coliseum (since feeding opponents to the lions does not seem out of the question here). On those steps, politicos watch while they applaud or boo the wheeling, dealing, arm-twisting, and teeth-gnashing coming from the West Wing office below them as well as from motel rooms, conference rooms, bedrooms, and back rooms all across the nation.
As the President tries both to appease and assuage Southern Dixiecrats while readying himself to force them by whatever means necessary to support his civil rights bill (and his election), three college-age students are brutally murdered in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer. Then, just as Barry Goldwater begins to lead in pre-election poll after poll in the southern states, black members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party demand to be seated in the Democratic convention instead of the official, all-white delegation. With the very real threat of the needed African-American vote sitting out the election and with the equally devastating threat of several Southern delegations boycotting the convention, the President looks to Hubert Humphrey to find a resolution or to lose Johnson's support to be on the 1964 ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
Nineteen actors portray over forty movers and shakers of the intensely dramatic events unfolding before usmany famous still to this day and populating their own places of admiration or scorn in our history books, according to one's political viewpoint. Chief among these of course is LBJ himself, with Michael Monagle incredibly reminding us in a hundred different ways of the giant Texan who could fascinate and amuse anyone with a Southern yarn and who also could turn around, roaring expletives and threats to that same person. With a stance where legs spread like a mighty Colossus, with a mouth that sometimes gapes open like a mammoth cave, and with incredibly long arms that may bear hug now and push out of the way later, Mr. Monagle captures a personality larger than life. At times lovable, funny, and awe-inspiring, his LBJ is at other times gross, deceitful, and downright hatefuleven to his loving, loyal wife Lady Bird (portrayed with dignity, strength, patience, and unwavering love by Gwendolyne Wagner).
As the docudrama unfolds, part of the richness of this Palo Alto Players production is created by the double roles that many actors play, often appearing as polar-opposite folks. Tom Gough is totally convincing as the soft-spoken, genial Senator Hubert Humphreyproven friend to the Civil Rights Movementand as the weaselly, caustic Senator Strom Thurmondthe non-compromising advocate of states' rights and of white rights. John Musgrave plays two ancients of Congress with just the right amount of doddering and either dastardliness or graciousness, according to one's politics: the segregationist to his dying days, Representative Howard "Judge" Smith and the eloquent peacemaker and loved-by-all minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen.
Kyle Smith dramatically switches personalities with great aplomb between the forceful voice of labor, Walter Reuther, and the equally in-your-face leader of segregationist states' rights and presidential candidate himself, Alabama Governor George Wallace. Michelle Mosley is the beady-eyed, equally prejudiced wife of George, Lurleen Wallace, as well as the enthusiastically supportive, liberal-leaning wife of Hubert Humphrey, Muriel. Vic Prosak shines playing several different Southern politicians who do not plan on budging in their resistance to civil rights while also depicting the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who tries to get Johnson to spend a few minutes considering military action in Vietnam when Johnson really only wants to get his Civil Rights Act past a seventy-plus-day Senate filibuster.
Many other outstandingly portrayed portraits of this monumental moment in history parade across the stage. Andrew Harris is the diabolical J. Edgar Hoover, who runs his FBI like its own independent arm of the government (and who thinks nothing of making a snarling, face-to-face blackmail threat to the president himself). Fred Pitts is as meek and mild as a peace-loving lamb and as ready to be on the roaring attack as a mighty lion in the role of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Mirroring the White House scenes of radically conflicting opinions and late-night strategy sessions are tense, oft-shout-filled, motel room caucuses among Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. There is the more conservative, play-by-the-books NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Gaddy Foster); the close friend of King's, Reverend Ralph Abernathy (Stephen L. Wilson); the more demanding and radical leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael (William Bryant, Jr.); and the firebrand organizer of the Freedom Summer, Bob Moses (Remi Ferguson). The historical scenes these fine actors reenact become a play within the play, intricately interlocking with events that would shape civil rights to this very day and with the success or failure of Johnson's bid for an act of Congress and to remain president another four years.
Among all the many powerful portraits directed so astutely by Peter Allas, Shannon Turner particularly deserves a special ovation of praise. Not only is she stunning in short appearances as another indubitable leader of the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King, but Ms. Turner almost causes the audience to rise to its feet mid-play when she reenacts Fannie Lou Hamer's gut-wrenching account before cameras of her brutal beating by police, as she also is challenging LBJ to accept the alternative Mississippi delegation to the 1964 convention.
Playwright, director, and creative team ensure that the two hours, thirty minutes of this captivating production pass with almost no notice of the time it takes to cover so many still-famous events; heretofore hidden conversations; and moments of individual angst and anger, euphoria and exhaustion. Along with the aforementioned stage design and its many stable and moving components necessary to represent a score of locations and settings, particularly noteworthy are the costumes of R. Dutch Fritz and the hair and make-up designed by Shiboune Thill to provide a brimming, 1960s catalogue of styles defining attitudes, class and personality. The projections designed by Randy Wong-Westbooke provide Washington majesty and historical touch-points to the scenes he has also designed, while the lighting of Rich Amerson provides the shimmering glow and the stark reality of the events playing out.
For those who lived through it, for those who have only read about it, or for those who hardly know about it, All the Way is a lesson of history that speaks loudly and informs importantly our present day views and viewpoints of the difficult, confusing, and (at least to half of the divided nation) troubling history unfolding around us. Palo Alto Players deserves every seat to be filled for every performance of this must-see production.
All the Way, through November 18, 2018, at Palo Alto Players in the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.