by Sergei Burbank · March 15, 2014
Of the multitude of tumultuous events that occurred during Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way focuses on two: the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 1964 presidential election. This is an effective framing for Schenkkan’s attempt at a progressive rehabilitation of the legendary Texan politician -- as both events are the unquestionable (if not spotless) victories of an otherwise greatly troubled legacy. Initially, LBJ (an electric Bryan Cranston) characterizes the controversial bill as a means to cement the recently assassinated predecessor’s legacy, and casts himself as a humble “caretaker President”; in short order, however, he takes full ownership of the bill, its passage, and what that will mean for the Southern prospects of the Democratic Party. Following that victory, the play shifts its focus to LBJ’s efforts around the 1964 election -- although the second act isn’t really about the wider campaign, but the efforts of civil rights activists to seat members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as delegates to the Democratic Convention in 1964. LBJ’s attempt to forge detente between the Northern Liberal and Southern Dixiecrat wings of the party is negotiated on the ground by Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), acting as an agent of the President’s will -- a mission serving as his personal audition for the VP slot on the 1964 ticket.
The political actors on the stage -- from Humphrey to J Edgar Hoover (a wonderfully dour Michael McKean) to Congress to the Civil Rights movement -- are all subject to LBJ’s political savvy: pieces allayed across a grand chessboard that he manipulates with mastery. The brilliance of Schenkkan’s script is in its mining of a truly epic and labyrinthine chapter of American history to create an almost impossibly tight and breezy narrative: the year (less: eleven months) between LBJ’s ascension and re-election to the Presidency unfold not as a chaotic catalog of calendar events, but as a canny dance of triangulation between LBJ and his various axes of influence: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden) and his movement on the one hand, and his congressional mentor Richard Russell (John McMartin) and Democratic Party southern grandees on the other. Placed at the intersection of America’s bigoted past and post-segregationist future, Johnson feigns uncertainty and helplessness to mask a steely resolve to “do what’s right,” regardless of the political consequences.
Despite the play’s ability to pour weighty issues into the smaller vessels of LBJ’s grudging respect for King and the loss of his friendship with Russell, other historical currents pass through. Robert McNamara (James Eckhouse) haunts the president time and again with a red folder containing intelligence from events in Vietnam, a marginal concern for its electoral implications above anything else; in a striking moment, the murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are overlayed with Johnson’s fateful decision regarding the Gulf of Tonkin; one dead student’s body serves as a nod towards the spectacular carnage that would -- inside four years -- obliterate Johnson’s agenda and legacy.
Cranston’s performance as LBJ is a marvel; a heap of tics and grunts, he embraces the role and the man, hooking us with a caricature in order to open a window to his soul. Cranston is a generous scene partner, and this openness to share the spotlight provides a key to LBJ’s fabled powers of persuasion: like a true champion fighter, he recognizes that it is not only when punches land that yields victory, but when one allows space for a sparring partner to move forward. Despite living up to his subject’s legendary crudeness and hilarity, Cranston provides moments of real emotional devastation; it is a performance by a true master.
He is supported by an able and deep ensemble; Christopher Acebo’s set places characters around Johnson in a semicircle that recalls a congressional chamber, but also resembles a jury box; it’s clear that LBJ views the ever-present gaze upon his back as the latter. Of special note are performances by Christopher Liam Moore as Johnson’s aide Walter Jenkins, and Eric Lenox Abrams, serving double duty as Bob Moses and David Dennis.
If there is a blind spot in this production, it is its women. It is expected that an ensemble cast will pull double- (or triple-, or more) duty; there is undeniable humor in seeing Susannah Schulman play political spouses Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey -- there is even, perhaps, a substantive comment there about the use of families as nearly interchangeable props. More problematic is the use of a dynamite Roslyn Ruff as both Fannie Lou Hamer and Coretta Scott King. The marginalization of Hamer, instrumental to the machinations at the Atlantic City convention, to bit part belies a flaw in the script. Ruff, to her credit, imbues both underwritten roles with real power.
While audiences of a certain age are undoubtedly drawn to shows that draw source material from their past (across the street, Jersey Boys continues its lucrative nine-year run on this very principle), All the Way pulls a neat trick: it dips into that collective past to recast a villain in more complex shades. (This is in distinct contrast to another excellent historical play, Frost/Nixon, which worked hard to reduce a progressive villain in stature.) Neither a jukebox musical nor a tubthumping rehash of well-worn political arguments, All the Way sparks a commendably deep and nuanced dialogue, forcing us to reexamine our understanding of the past, while providing us a compelling and entertaining character study.