The Great Society
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Bill Rauch
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
And The Seattle Repertory Theater
Part Two of two plays about the Lyndon B Johnson presidency, 1963-1968.
Reviewed by Steve Rowland for Shakespeare Central
Taken together, The Great Society and its prequel, All the Way, are an important new work of art. Robert Schenkkan has done a masterful job of writing two intricate scripts that are at once true to the history of the mid 1960’s upheaval, with the posturing, maneuvering, manipulation and agonizing that swirled around it and a deep artistic probe into LBJ’s personal and political rise and fall ….. all against the backdrop of the paranoia and hysteria that abounded in the inner workings of the US government.
Despite the marketing of these as “The LBJ Plays”, they are more than that. Schenkkan, through director Bill Rauch – puts LBJ at the center of dozens of powerful characters in a spiraling maelstrom of power struggles, cries for human rights, the increasing violence against, and then from civil rights activists, and the escalation of perhaps the most ill-conceived war in American history, the one in Vietnam. Orbiting LBJ are: Martin Luther King, Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Kennedy, Strom Thurmond, Robert McNamara, Adam Clayton Powell, and many others. It is the interplay of the people, their ideas, their ambitions and their often strong-arm tactics that bring the story to life so immediately. So the play is not about “LBJ”, but about the interplay of ideas and manipulations, and ultimately about the effect of too much of a burden, even on a powerful man.
LBJ is masterly performed by Jack Willis who seems to have been born to play this part. He moves from intensity and explosive power to depth, introspection and quietness. And still, it is the ensemble that delivers the full story. Martin Luther King is played with deep resonance by Kenajuan Bentley. Any actor tackling King must be tuned in deeply to King’s voice, and Bentley excels here. And Bobby Kennedy is brought to life by Danforth Comins, capturing, not only Kennedy’s large mouth and the resonance of his voice, but his strong moral authority. Other supporting roles are equally important, and equally impressive. Richard Elmore as Hoover, Kevin Kenerly as activist Bob Moses, Peter Frechette as V.P. Humphrey and Bakesta King as Corretta Scott King.
This play seems to demand a strong repertory ensemble – and the tightly knit ensemble from The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is perhaps one of our country’s great acting treasures. Unlike a cast randomly assembled, no matter how talented, a group of actors that operates like family – knowing each other, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses — has ways of collectively telling the story. The ensemble has an elasticity that allows actors to stretch into their roles on any given night, and have the equivalent of a safety net. This reviewer witnessed performances on two consecutive nights – the last night of previews and the opening night. The audiences were wildly different, the first reacting to the horrors of the racism portrayed, the second, opening night crowd seemed to have lived through the time period and knew well the ambitions of many of the characters – and immediately reacted to the Schenkkan/Rauch sly commentary on the story’s many villains.
Bill Rauch’s touch as a director is getting ever more virtuostic. His subtlety often allows us to forget that there is a director. He focuses on details at every step, bringing a modernist and minimalist touch. Actors freeze into still life as scenes transition and others emerge from the shadows. There is precision and nuance in blocking, in the timing of intense arguments, in quality of voices and the superb blending of lighting, projections and audio. Action moves from quiet but seething phone calls to intense protest marches and police stand offs spilling out into the aisles. Johnson’s passionate and often overlooked speeches are delivered directly to us, with his searing insistence that America could be far better, and that all people’s rights are, indeed, inalienable.
The scenic design, by Christopher Acebo, at first seems disarmingly simple. It consists of stately rows of wooden benches, arranged in a semi-circle. The power of imagination helps us see it as congress, as offices, churches, places of late night phone calls and with imaginatively placed sliding beds, desks, and a coffin; while its center becomes the Oval Office, a funeral home, bedrooms, headquarters of The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, and then with the help of a huge video screen in the background we are transported to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, to the slums of Chicago, and to smoldering Los Angeles during the Watts riots.
Acebo’s set, the projections by Shawn Sagady, and the expert lighting by David Weiner, are all coordinated by stage manager Christian Bolender, and keep the pace moving briskly as the story unfolds. And as the play unfolds, the set disintegrates before our eyes, bringing chaos and sadness to Johnson’s too early and heartbreaking demise. The costumes, by long time OSF designer Deb Dryden and her associate Sarah Smith are important in capturing the period – from exemplary outfits worn by Coretta Scott King and Lady Bird Johnson, to Johnson’s mostly unkempt suits, to very accurate re-creations of riot gear worn by police. Alabama Governor George Wallace ordered police to meet and then brutalize black protestors on the Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, now remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Heart-stopping moments in the play bring us back 50 years. One is the Vietnam protest suicide of 31 year old Quaker activist Norman Morrison, who, under the windows of McNamara’s Pentagon office, set his one year old daughter down nearby, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.
Brilliantly told also is the wrenching story of 27 year old church deacon Jimmy Lee Jackson, who had tried unsuccessfully to register to vote several times. Lee returns from the grave to tell Dr. King, and us, the story of his murder by the police. Taking part in a peaceful protest march in Marion, Alabama, the police first beat his 82 year old grandfather, and then Jackson’s own mother. When Jackson tried to help his mother he was shot twice in the stomach, and then left for hours as ambulances were denied access.
James Fowler, the policeman who shot Jimmy Lee Jackson at point blank range, admitted to pulling the trigger, but was not indicted by a grand jury.
Schenkkan is an effective historian. He pulls together the threads of the stories, and shows how one event leads to another, how one poor decision leads to cover-ups, and then expanding webs of lies. Johnson heroically uses all the political savvy and power that he can muster to achieve his dream of a Great Society. Early in his presidency he is the invincible master of his universe, but his domestic influence becomes undermined by his inability to contain the fighting in Vietnam, or to follow his gut. He allows McNamara and Westmoreland to obfuscate, to manipulate and to escalate.
Schenkkan deftly brings the dialogues to life, sometimes using actual transcripts of speeches and press conferences. Rauch, keeps us engaged every step of the way. The screen is regularly updated with numbers of dead and wounded in Vietnam, just as newscasts and newspapers kept us up to date in the 60’s. Walter Cronkite appears on screen, and sounds and voices of the time are woven into the story. Johnson’s downward spiral is hard to watch, but necessary for us now.
Some of the history leaves us gasping.
Johnson had tried to fire J. Edgar Hoover (in part 1, “All The Way”); he soon lets his paranoia take over and then orders Hoover to use all of his muscle to bring down Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy, and gives a green light to COINTELPRO - the vast and vastly immoral campaign of spying on American citizens who so rightfully protested the continuing murder of civilians in Vietnam as well as the deaths of tens of thousands of impoverished young American men. Johnson’s anger at King and Kennedy for publicly disagreeing with him about Vietnam becomes an obsession. Their actions are not only personally disloyal, but to him, border on treason. It makes one really wonder if it was in great part their coming out against the war, and Johnson’s green light and hands off policy to the FBI might have opened a door to both assassinations.
And the play ends with a bombshell – that Richard Nixon actually de-railed an imminent peace agreement in 1968, asking the South Vietnamese to wait until he was president and could get them a ‘better deal’. That decision opened the way for 5 more years of war and countless and unnecessary deaths on both sides.
The parallels to the present are sadly astonishing. The play is far too timely. We can, and must, do better. Ferguson, a polarized congress, government agencies condoning spying and torture, police departments run amok, the continuing murders of black people – the roots of all these evils are clearly presented. It is all an old story. And, 50 years later, the people of richest country on Earth are still having trouble accepting our gifts graciously and with kindness, being present with sharing and open hearts, really seeking for social justice to create what should be our birthright – a truly Great Society.
Hats off to Schenkkan, Rauch, Willis, Bentley and all.
See this play as soon as you can.