Dallas — “I feel like a catfish biting into a fat, juicy worm and finding a sharp hook in my jaw,” says Lyndon B. Johnson, as the 34th president reflects on the foreign and domestic battles he faces after winning his second term, in Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, a Dallas Theater Center co-production with Houston’s Alley Theatre, where it just finished a successful run.
DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty wrangles this epic, history-packed play with 18 actors playing some 40 roles at a riveting horse-race pace at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre. Once you get in the saddle, you want to go the distance with this profane, ego-driven president, who will lie, cheat and step on people’s feet to win his War on Poverty and get his Medicare Act passed. But when he tries to bluster and bluff his way through the escalating costs and body counts of the Vietnam war, his previously successful tactics drag him into the dirt.
The Great Society is Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, the Tony-winning drama celebrating Johnson’s 11-month tenure as the “accidental president” with his arm-twisting, wheeler-dealer tactics in getting the Civil Rights Act passed, a critical and audience success in DTC’s 2016 production.
The sequel begins in 1964 after LBJ’s inauguration, and follows him relentlessly through the triumphs and miseries of the ’60s to his exiting the White House, and Richard Nixon’s ascendancy in 1969. Quite a ride. The show opens onto Beowulf Boritt’s powerful set design of 15 brightly lit white Corinthian columns, projecting the authority and grandeur of the White House. (The design team and many cast members return from the DTC/Alley Theater production of All the Way.)
LBJ, played with a winning combination of country-boy charm, ruthless egoism, and hard-won political smarts by Brandon Potter, steps away from the crowd, past the presidential office and tells the audience, in a cadenced, deliberate drawl, a story about a bull rider he saw when he was a kid. The rider knows he can be killed by the huge, pissed-off bull, but LBJ tells us he remembers a flashing look of daring triumph in the eye of the rider as he signals to open the gate. Whether he stays on or gets thrown under the bull, the act of just being on top of all that muscle and power, even for a second, keeps the bull rider coming back to the rodeo.
Schenkkan’s skill in following the let-‘er-rip impulse of LBJ drives the play, and Potter is superb in his forceful, touching, vengeful and ultimately tragic portrayal of the president. His LBJ, wearing his ’60s gray suit, is front and center in virtually every scene and never stops pushing and pulling and cajoling and cussing and hand-shaking and bending the truth to the bitter vengeful end.
Potter captures Schenkkan’s beleaguered and belligerent LBJ best in the intensely theatrical scenes when his ego and his conscience hit him equally hard. He stands alone viewing protesters outside shouting, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Potter conveys the president’s fatal mix of stubborn, prideful orneriness and honest social vision when the ghosts of dead soldiers and civil rights victims move in from all angles to haunt him.
Dozens of fascinating figures from the 1960s move through the Oval Office, and it’s often comic to watch them test their diplomacy, Ivy League vocabulary or rational arguments against a man hell bent on securing his legacy as the president who built The Great Society of the title. His true enemies, he declares, are “poverty, disease, illiteracy, strife, and bigotry,” and he means it. LBJ may have lied to himself about the end justifying the means, but he for sure got trapped in his own equation.
Everyone in the cast looks the part, and some are downright eerie. Shawn Hamilton is both calculating and eloquent as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., partnering with LBJ on the Selma strategy until his own camp becomes divisive and the war escalates beyond anything King can condone. Ace Anderson is strong as both Stokely Carmichael, pushing for overt action through the Black Power movement, and as the ghost of an innocent young MLK disciple murdered in a march.
Chris Hutchison is a tall, tailored and confident Robert McNamara, delivering the latest news on Vietnam, clearly the president’s sleazy PR partner in painting loss as a victory. Dean Nolen looks appropriately befuddled, kind and lost in the funhouse as Hubert Humphry, and David Coffee is a greasy J. Edgar Hoover, feeding the president’s growing paranoia and heavy-handed vengefulness.
Jay Sullivan is a handsome, arrogant Bobby Kennedy, a patrician who clearly loathes and mistrusts the hick president as much as LBJ is annoyed by Kennedy’s Boston drawl and mean-spirited condescension. Tiana Kaye Johnson is briskly efficient as LBJ’s loyal secretary, a touching Coretta Scott King, and does an exquisite a cappella version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” when the president is facing defeat and desertion on both sides of the aisle.
All the Way covered less than a year and ended in a victory, whereas in The Great Society, Schenkkan must cram four years of legislation and timely facts into the script, plus kick his beaten-down bull rider out of the rodeo and into the pasture in Johnson City with a thin, worn Ladybird (Leah Spillman).
Still, we leave the theater with a tragic sense of what was lost when this gifted, and greatly conflicted president left the White House to make way for Tricky Dick.