All the Way

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Robert Schenkkan’s absorbing epic drama, All the Way, focuses on the early days of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. Beginning just after Johnson’s dramatic swearing in after Kennedy’s assassination, the play charts an incredible, politically charged year in which he pushed through the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and managed to win election by a landslide.

Schenkkan’s script is Shakespearean in scope, length, and word count. But it is so masterfully structured, so filled with compelling incident, and peopled with such dynamic characters that you are on the edge of your seat throughout its three-hour running time, despite the fact that you know the outcome.

All the Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and debuted in Ashland in 2012. From there it was fast-tracked to Broadway with Bryan Cranston stepping in to play LBJ. The play was successful, winning Tonys for Schenkkan and Cranston while reminding us of a time when intelligent, literate scripts were a staple of the Broadway market. A condensed version of the play was filmed by HBO, landing Cranston with another award nomination.

South Coast Repertory (SCR) opens their 2016 -2017 Season with a powerful production of the play featuring a towering (quite literally) and galvanic performance by Hugo Armstrong as LBJ. Rarely absent from the stage, Armstrong’s Johnson is commanding, wheedling, ferocious, persuasive, ambitious, tenacious, charming, belligerent, and often vulgar. All in all – the consummate politician. But what makes the character truly resonate are his quiet moments of self-doubt, loneliness, and simple humanity. Armstrong brings all these colors to vivid life and shoulders the focus of the play with impressive stamina.

If LBJ’s character emerges as more sympathetic than usual, Larry Bates’ effective Martin Luther King is seen behind closed doors where he can appear less a saint and more a political pragmatist. JD Cullum’s convincing Hubert Humphrey is the perfectly refined counterpart to LBJ’s Texas bluster. Darin Singleton brings true pathos to the role of Johnson’s longtime aide, Walter Jenkins, and Larry John Meyers is all elegance and a sense of betrayal as Senator Richard Russell, Johnson’s mentor. Greg Daniels’ Roy Wilkins and Christian Henley’s Stokely Carmichael clash constantly as they dramatize the divide within the Black fight for equal rights. As this is the early 60’s, the ladies are not much in evidence, but both Nike Doukas and Tracey A. Leigh do excellent work in their multiple roles. The entire cast, almost all of whom play multiple roles, are uniformly skillful and accomplished.

SCR’s Artistic Director Marc Masterson directs the play with a keen understanding of dramatic intensity, an eye for effective staging, and a superb sense for keeping the multiple incidents and characters clear and concise. Ralph Funicello’s massive capitol-inspired set offers the perfect backdrop and blends perfectly with Jaymi Lee Smith’s invaluable lighting design.

While the HBO film is a chance for audiences to see Cranston’s performance, the real way to experience All the Way is in the theatre. And you won’t see a better example of what live theatre can offer than with this memorable SCR production.

South Coast Repertory    September 2 – October 2, 2016