Regional Reviews: St. Louis
All the Way
It's a herculean effort, both for President Johnson and actor Brian Dykstra, one which often resembles a collision of C-SPAN and "Game Of Thrones." The eleven months in question focus mainly on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Johnson's endless work to get it through Congress, in spite of the white southern Democrats. It is both courtly and brutal, in the days before air conditioning and jet travel and PACs all ruined Congress.
And being a civil rights story, it's genuinely noble in intent, and often dazzling in its didacticism. Both you and America are bound to come out of it on a nobler plane. But not too noble: for it's also a "sausage factory" of political wrangling, and a "sausage fest" of manly conquest.
Avery Glymph is iconic and very business-like as Martin Luther King, Jr. He always seems to be looking over our shoulders, at some distant glimmer of sunrise. But there's not much room in Robert Schenkkan's script for poetry or introspection for him, or any of them. All the Way is all historical arcana (and backstabbing, with a chivalrous smile), wearing every one of those 19 people down to the nubs, both spiritually and emotionally. It's a rapid-fire, high-def history lesson, handed out with a pat on the shoulder and a knife in the back.
Both Mr. Glymph and Mr. Dykstra are surrounded by a lot of our finest local actors. Gary Wayne Barker is stunning as Howard "Judge" Smith, and Anderson Matthews is irresistibly charming as Richard Russell (the man, not the huge Senate office building).
J. Samuel Davis gets some excellent moments as an aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., and (Black Rep producer) Ron Himes is an affable, god-like figure as the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. J. Cameron Barnett is not from St. Louis, as far as I can tell, but he is stunning in a scene (after an infamous triple murder in Mississippi) that will echo the "Black Lives Matter" movement, born here in this last turbulent year.
There are other towering moments, as when President Johnson promises a Western senator he will "make the desert bloom" with a new federal water project, and some weirdly hilarious ones too, as when he is dumbfounded to discover a close aide is a homosexual: "How can you tell?" he asks (the famously closeted) J. Edgar Hoover, long-time head of the FBI (played with a thick coat of polished political shellac by Robert Vincent Smith). Hoover doesn't blow his own cover, even as he tries to explain this sociological "mystery" of gays among us, but it is deeply (and bitterly) ironic, half-a-century later. Or, wickedly funnyI can't decide which.
Mr. Dykstra also gets a lot of genuine laughs, even as he sinks lower and lower in the Oval Office chair, surrounded by a legion of spiders in business suits (costume note, shouldn't there be seersucker in the summer in Washington?). And he bears a good likeness to the president, too. Playwright Schenkkan's dialog hits a few of the little country-boy touches that we've heard on NPR's "Fresh Air" over the years, but really stuns us when he's rolling out terabytes of information on one of the great national battles that didn't involve carpet bombings or tanks or paratroopers.
It's mostly men up there on stage, posed like gods on Mount Olympus, or like chess pieces all around the "accidental president," under Steven Woolf's direction (as the Rep's 49th season opens). But there are women in the story too: Bernadette Quigley shows how LBJ could survive all this, by having "another self" to share it with, in Lady Bird Johnson, a student of history and his harshest critic.
Likewise, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse does very well as the warm, encouraging wife of Hubert H. Humphrey (vice-president at the time) and elsewhere as Lurleen Wallace, whose absolute delight over a phone call from the president of the United States is very funny, till she is sharply rebuked by her husband, the would-be president, and (then) governor of Alabama. But it's 1964 and Lurleen Wallace is a good Southern wife, so she retreats immediately, of course. If he'd slapped her right across the face, it would hardly be more shocking to today's audience.
Jon Shaver is great as George Wallace in one of those roles so subsumed by calculation and ambition that we're constantly looking over his shoulder, not for the dawn, but to see what's going on behind his back. An acrid, burnt edge of anger in his manner reveals a lot of what's going on in his mind. But nearly every one of these men is running a shell game, where what they really want is always under the other walnut shell.
Most prominent of all the women on stage is Myxolydia Tyler who, as Coretta Scott King, must endure one of J. Edgar Hoover's dirtiest tricks. But her larger role is as another woman of recent history you may have forgotten, Fannie Lou Hamer, tortured in jail (also in Mississippi) for registering black voters. Like Mr. Barnett's, her outrage may seem impertinent to powerful whites, but it couldn't be more urgent or important, even today.
It's not sexy (unless you really get off on power) or mysteriously paced, like TV's "Mad Men." But All the Way captures a frantic, pivotal moment in one of America's true dramas.
Through October 4, 2015, at the Loretto-Hilton center, 130 North Edgar Rd. For more information go to www.repstl.org.
The Players (in order of appearance)
Behind The Scenes