Dallas — “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one,” says Lyndon Baines Johnson, reflecting on a southern Democrat intent on hijacking the 36th president’s push to pass a Civil Rights bill.
LBJ tells it like it is. He also knows the carpenter has to saw and hammer the wood—or whatever else needs shaping—to build anything. Pondering on all the sweet-talk, wheedling and ruthless deal-making it takes to leverage the forces of power to create a better world, he goes on: “Nothin’ comes free. Nothin'." Not even good,” he says, staring into the distance.
It’s late in 1963, and JFK’s assassination has thrust the former vice president into the White House in All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s high-powered Tony Award-winning political drama, directed with bravura style by Kevin Moriarty at the Dallas Theater Center. The production, which played to sold-out audiences in Houston, is a collaboration between that city’s Alley Theatre and DTC. Talk about hybrid vigor. This show has enough energy, elegance and talent to win an election—and a rapt audience.
With 17 actors playing some 40 roles, the fast-moving, history-packed drama focuses on the tense 11 months between LBJ’s swearing in on Air Force One and his landslide reelection on Nov. 3, 1964. The action splits neatly into a first act built around maneuverings to pass the landmark Civil Rights bill Kennedy promised, and a second act devoted to proving to America that they should go “All the Way with LBJ,” the campaign slogan that helped earn the “accidental” president his own four-year term.
Political powerhouses and wishful wannabes move across Beowulf Boritt’s brilliant set design, made of 15 towering white Corinthian columns, on which historic scenes are projected, as characters walk in and out of the offices and chambers. LBJ, played by a tightly wound and unapologetically ambitious Brandon Potter, is clearly in the center of the political forces swirling about him. Snarling over the latest lies of Governor George Wallace (a sleazy, sneering Michael Brusasco) or turning the underhanded tactics of J. Edgar Hoover (a heavy-jowled and heavy-handed Kieran Connolly) back on himself, Potter’s LBJ is clearly in charge, and thrives on keeping it that way.
Potter gets laughs and knowing nods when telling Johnson’s profane and ribald stories, and he treats Lady Bird, played with a forgiving smile and tough skin by Leah Spillman, like a handy prop—on good days. Back-slapping and smiling, he pushes Hubert Humphrey, a moral man of good will played with a kind of sad, gentle compliance by Chamblee Ferguson, to make deals he’s uncomfortable with by promising him the vice-presidency. Potter’s Johnson just stands by and keeps on talking when his loyal top aide Walter Jenkins, a handsome and bright-eyed Steven Michael Walters, is arrested on a morals charge. Even Lady Bird grits her teeth and charges off when Lyndon is that ruthless.
Neon signs flash down the columns like lightning, signaling a bill or election countdown: eight months, five months, etc. Time moves relentlessly, and the driven president is moving with it—measuring days and counting votes, pitting one man’s ambition against another’s moral fiber. Schenkkan’s script, modeled after Shakespeare’s history plays, showcases not only Johnson’s famed political prowess in manipulating people and principles to win, but also patches of sudden emotional vulnerability and a deeply felt desire to pull up the disenfranchised and impoverished of his land.
(Schenkkan’s The Great Society, a second play based on the continuation of LBJ’s presidency and political legacy that premiered in 2014, is on its way to New York. Both works were commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)
In All the Way, A personal monologue addressed to the audience about teaching young Mexican students in the Texas valley as a young man is such a moment, and Potter’s LBJ delivers these stories with just the right tone of a good ol’ boy story—and a truly good man’s commitment to justice.
While Johnson is wrangling with dissenting Dixiecrats and northern liberals in an attempt at compromise to get the Civil Rights bill passed, Martin Luther King Jr., (a sharp-eyed and dignified Shawn Hamilton), is also trying to strike a balance between forces in his own camp. Longtime movement leaders like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (a nervous and fretful Hassan El-Amin), are cautious and uncertain about losing it all through rash action.
Militant student leaders like Stokely Carmichael (played by boxer-built and vocally compelling Adam A. Anderson), is on fire to get the old promises kept—now. Hamilton’s King is an eloquent speaker when he needs to be, but he is also an able power broker in his own right, acting swiftly and decisively on a delegate compromise to keep his alliances from unraveling in a crucial moment. His scenes with LBJ are taut with the reality of what’s at stake for both men. Their ultimate trust in each other lights up their last scene, giving the moment an optimistic and spiritual glow that carries the whole play to the finish line.
The second act wavers a bit here and there when a bill gets “stuck in committee” or some politician goes on a bit long before LBJ cuts him off, but this epic of a play wraps its words around 11 months with such skill and drama, you hardly realize three hours have gone by. What you do feel, when it’s done, is a fresh sense of the complexity and spirit of LBJ—and a sad nostalgia for a time when politicians talked, cajoled, argued with each other, but were somehow able to “get it done."
The same racial strife and numbing economic inequality are confronting America today, as then. Would that the nasty debaters and rude clowns shouting over their mikes and each other had the skills and the wills of the men and women who went “all the way” with LBJ half a century ago.
All the Way should be required viewing in this election year.