The Great Society

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Jack Willis as President Lyndon Johnson

Jack Willis as LBJ. OSF photo by Jenny Graham

The Great Society
by Robert Schenkkan | World Premiere

I lived through the unsettled, uncertain four years of the Presidential term of Lyndon Johnson, the period in which The Great Society is set.  It was a time of strong political and cultural tides.  After decades of seeming nationwide societal consensus, the country was splitting along race and age lines.  Johnson was at the center of the turmoil, pushing for equality while earning the enmity of young people and liberals with his Vietnam War. I demonstrated against him.  My family hated him.  He wouldn’t stop lying nor stop the killing war.

The Great Society tells Johnson’s story as that of a tragic hero.  Very Shakespearian.  Massively tragic.  Classically sad.

As soon as the curtain went up, I was immediately immersed in the drama on stage as the political battles surrounding expansion of Johnson’s social agenda brought me back to my idealistic high school days.  But, I fought against the different sides of Johnson shown in the play. Schenkkan’s script showed Johnson himself bedeviled by Vietnam, wanting first to avoid it and then to end it.  The play fully explored the good social things that Johnson wanted to do but couldn’t because of the mess of Vietnam.  TGS makes Johnson human. He uses his legendary arm-twisting skills and political cunning for good. The play gives that devil Johnson a soul, and I long thought he didn’t have one.  I was captivated by the onstage action, yet troubled by the full-circle examination of the President we loathed so intensely.

Schenkkan very intelligently focuses on Johnson and avoids any attempt to chronicle the era in general. An exploration about those years would have an incomprehensible number of major characters and gigantic issues.  By telling the story of LBJ, plenty of the twists and turns going on in 1964-68 are followed, but there is a theme and cohesion.  Three acts in over three hours follow Johnson plotting to improve government help to the poor, mostly Afro-American citizens and reluctantly agreeing to send non-combat troops to Vietnam. Vietnam is Johnson’s doing and undoing, but the Civil Rights movement that is both encouraged and frustrated by Johnson also derails Johnson’s equality dreams as marches and protests lead to disorder and reaction.  From the Edmond Pettus Bridge, to Watts, to Chicago, black rage and white fear pop up Whack-a-Mole-like, making Congressional action on voting rights difficult and further anti-poverty programs impossible. As we track Johnson into Acts II and III, less energy is spent on his positive agenda and more time is centered on Vietnam.  Johnson’s power is drained as more blood spills in Asia. By the end of Act III Johnson has no power to even envision a pathway to the society he effectively worked to bring about four years earlier.

Schenkkan’s masterpiece faithfully brings back milestone Johnson moments.  From the humorously depicted arm-twisting of the AMA to support Medicare to Johnson’s “I will not seek, nor will I accept” renomination bombshell, the script weaves the history I remember into the tragic story of Lyndon Johnson presented as an evening’s entertainment. The use, abuse, and dissipation of political and moral authority astound.

Friends who also survived Johnson’s Presidency wish for more Civil Rights stories, fewer Civil Rights stories, more coverage of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, or more on the women of the time.  We all have hot buttons in our memories, but I think Schenkkan got it right.  This play, and its Tony Award-winning predecessor, All the Way, are most about President Johnson.  As stage manager Chris Bolender said at a post-play talk, the plays really should have been gone by Shakespearean titles LBJ – Part I and LBJ – Part II.  The dramatic flow couldn’t handle the weight of dealing with Important events that didn’t center on the President.  As focused, The Great Society makes the issues and dilemmas faced by America and Johnson in the 1960’s resonate as we read about Iraq and Ferguson.

The Great Society is a massively ambitious new work that is massively successful.The play is long, too long for Broadway where three hours is the limit.  Despite its length there was not one time I came out of the play, wondered about the time, or felt the slightest drag.

It helps endlessly that Jack Willis plays Johnson.  Willis looks physically similar LBJ.  He projects energy when LBJ is up, and he emotes deep melancholy tiredness in later scenes.  Willis restores to life, LBJ in all of his roles ranging from glad-handing cheerleader to behind-the-scenes manipulating ass.  While the lines given to his Johnson character are tight, sharp, and smart, Willis is tighter, sharper, and smarter in his delivery.

All the Way needed Bryan Cranston in the LBJ role to convince producers to fund its run on Broadway.  The Great Society no doubt will need Cranston or similar known box-office draw.  I can only curse the unfairness of theater audiences and pitty them because they will not see Willis in his role.

As far as praising additional actors or members of the creative team, I am at a loss of where to begin.  Virtually every person on stage or behind the stage has created art. Truly.

Of course director Bill Rauch deserves heaps of praise for bringing together  creative people, having a vision, and getting out of the way as the individuals made their magic.  But, each craft and actor shone. Christopher Acebo’s set masterfully decayed throughout the acts, Deb Dryden’s costumes were frighteningly appropriate, Shawn Sagady’s visual clips along the rear wall were true additions and never distractions.  And more and more and more.

Meanwhile the acting was both inspired and flawless.  I hesitate to mention any actor because the cast is so very strong.  Kenajuan Bentley was nuanced and spectacular as Martin Luther King. But so were Wayne T. Carr (Stokely Carmichael), Danforth Comins (Bobby Kennedy), Richard Elmore (J. Edgar Hoover), Jonathan Haugen (Wallace/Nixon), Michael J. Hume (Dirksen), Kevin Kenerly (Moses/Williams/Frye), Mark Murphey (McNamara/Mills), and Tyrone Wilson (Abernathy/Powell).

The individual performances were chillingly good. They also jelled together into something even stronger and more powerful.

Every component of The Great Society works. The writing, the production vision, the stagecraft, the acting together make memorable theater.

Ozdachs Rating

5 Syntaxes out of 5

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