THE GREAT SOCIETYBy Robert Schenkkan
Part Two of “All the Way”
A co-production with the Alley Theatre
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Kevin Moriarty
Scenic Design – Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design – Jen Caprio
Lighting Design – Clifton Taylor
Original Music and Sound Design – Broken Chord
Projection Design – Caite Hevner
Director of Production – Rebecca Cribbin
Stage Manager – Megan Winters
Producer – Joanna Lugo
Regional Casting – Tiffany Nichole Greene
Tyrees Allen – James Bevel, SCLC Organizer; Rev. Dobynes, Minister in Marion, AL; Ensemble
Ace Anderson – Stokely Carmichael, SNCC organizer; Jimmie Lee Jackson, Church Deacon in
Marion, AL; John Lewis, SNCC organizer; Ensemble
James Black – Walter Cronkite
David Coffee – J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director; Ensemble
Shawn Hamilton – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., SCLC president
Chris Hury – Gov. George Wallace, D-AL; Sherriff Jim Clark, Dallas County, AL;
Richard M. Nixon, former Vice President; Norman Morrison, Quaker anti-war
Chris Hutchison – Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense; Wilbur Mills, D-AR; Ensemble
Tiana Kaye Johnson – Sally Childress; Coretta Scott King; Ensemble
David Matranga – Adam Walinsky, Aide to Sen. Kennedy; Gen. William Westmoreland, Head of
American Forces in Vietnam; Seymore Trammell, District Attorney in AL;
Stanley Levison, SCLC advisor; Gardner Ackley, AMA; Ensemble
Dean Nolen – Vice President Hubert Humphrey; Ensemble
Brandon Potter – President Lyndon Baines Johnson
David Rainey – Rev. Ralph Abernathy, SLCL secretary-treasurer; Adam Clayton Powell, D-NY;
Santry Rush – Deke DeLoach, FBI deputy director; Dr. James Appel; Mayor Richard Daley,
Chicago, IL; Gen. Wheeler; Ensemble
Lindsay Ryan – Muriel Humphrey; Pat Nixon; Sherriff’s Auxiliary volunteer for Sherriff Clark;
Leah Spillman – Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady; Ensemble
Jay Sullivan – Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY; Ensemble
Todd Waite – Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-IL; Colonel A Lingo, Head of Alabama Police; Clark
Clifford, Secretary of Defense; Ensemble
Ryan Woods – Bob Moses, Founder and Head of SNCC; Father Clements; Hosea Williams,
SNCC Organizer; Marquette Frye; Ensemble
Reviewed Performance: 3/13/2018
Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
As with all good historical plays, this one begins at a time of triumph-the election of Lyndon Baines Johnson as the nation’s 36th president. And, it begins with a monologue from LBJ himself. In front of a set showing the bare bones of the oval office and dominated by a series of Corinthian columns representing not only the colonnade of the White house and the power of the office but the Greek origins of all epic tragedies, Lyndon (played by Brandon Potter, who portrayed Johnson in DTC’s production of “All the Way”) shares with the audience a memory of a rodeo he saw as a child. He describes a bull rider preparing for his ride and wonders aloud what would drive someone to do something that would likely end in defeat and possibly injury or death. He says that he saw on the face of the bull rider, just before the gate opened to begin his brief ride, a look of joy, and we realize that Lyndon is adjusting his grip and with that same look of joy on his face, is ready for the ride to begin.
The gate opens and we’re off! For the next couple of hours, we watch as LBJ absorbs the jolts and shocks of a presidency that threatens to throw him and, in the end, leaves him defeated in the dust. We watch the beginning optimism as the president and his allies begin the move to pass the acts that would be the backbone of The Great Society-Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and the bills that would constitute the “War on Poverty”. But politics is a messy profession and the give and take necessary to get bills passed takes a toll on all sides.
Playwright Robert Shenkkan gives us three parallel stories and artfully shows how each affects the Johnson administration. There is LBJ’s need to appease the Southern Democrats in congress by delaying introducing a voting rights act so that he can get his poverty and education programs. At the same time, the Civil Rights movement is demanding the right to vote and refuses to stand still while the administration negotiates. And on the edge is the relationship with Vietnam and the actions that threaten to pull the United States into another war.
This is epic material and director Kevin Moriarty directs the proceedings with crispness and clarity. Especially effective is the blending of scenes. Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson (Ace Anderson) telling the story of his death in Marion, Alabama to Martin Luther King Jr. (Shawn Hamilton) was striking example of this. This may have been put in by the playwright, but Mr. Moriarty has visualized these with power and emotion. He has made a 2 ½ hour play in two acts so watchable that it seems to fly by. I stayed with it all the way.
Set Designer Beowulf Boritt provided a wonderful area for all of this to take place. Amidst the afore-mentioned columns (backed by the American flag for much of the play) we are taken to Marion, AL and to the brutal beating of protesters by police at the Pettis Bridge, and to white protest in Chicago suburbs-all occurring around and into the oval office. Rather than a sanctuary for LBJ, his office becomes the arena in which the turmoil in the country comes to roost. In addition, lighting designer Clifton Taylor provided excellent atmosphere for the proceedings and projection designer Caite Hevner deserves mention for projections of battle footage on the stage and for the Vietnam death and casualty figures shown on the sides of the columns. Both designers helped make abstract history real and immediate.
Costume designer Jen Caprio took us back to the sixties and to the styles worn by the political elite of the time. She also got to take us to Rural Mississippi and Alabama and from there to the Watts Riot and from there to the combat gear of soldiers in Vietnam. I hope the work was fun because it paid off beautifully and contributed to the show’s impact. I must admit that the original music and sound effect by Broken Chord did not stand out to me. It blended into and contributed to the entire production.
But central to the power of this show is the talent of the cast. Brandon Potter as Lyndon Baines Johnson is the center of the production. He is onstage most, if not all the time and is the one character who speaks to the audience to provide us entry into this story. I must say that physically, Mr. Potter does not have the height or weight of LBJ and does not sound like the late president. The lack of stature affects some of the confrontations, particularly if another actor is taller than him and puts Mr. Potter’s character in a weaker position. This would not have been the case with LBJ who used his stature as a weapon. That having been said, Mr. Potter’s portrayal fits with that framework of the play and is emotionally compelling. Particularly effective are the moments when he talks to the audience and we see the weaknesses he is obligated to hide from the rest of the world. LBJ is the center of the show and Brandon Potter’s portrayal keep us with him till the end.
Also central to the story is Martin Luther King Jr. and Shawn Hamilton reveals the humanity of the civil rights leader. Mr. Hamilton shows the trials of a man who has seen some change but sees the road to further change blocked by laws and violence and struggles within his own movement. We are shown a man discouraged by events but still driven by his desire for freedom for all humankind. And Shawn Hamilton has a wonderful command of King’s speaking style and can preach as only Martin Luther King Jr. could.
I deliberately listed every character played by this talented cast so people could get a sense of the scale of this work. And, as every good actor does, each character they portrayed was distinct and identifiable. I will mention some performers specifically, but I want to commend all of them for the commitment and talent they displayed. Dean Nolen as Vice President Hubert Humphrey begins the term feeling like an equal only to find himself marginalized like his predecessors. Mr. Nolen makes the change from disappointed outsider to pragmatic yes-man believable. Tiana Kaye Johnson plays LBJ’s secretary Sally and provides us a person loyal to the president. Her character also provides a path for the war to confront LBJ face to face.
Ace Anderson makes a strong impression with all his roles, particularly the murder victim Jimmie Lee Jackson and black power activist Stokely Carmichael. Leah Spillman plays a loving and loyal Lady Bird Johnson, showing the love that binds the two together. Chris Hury has far too much fun portraying both George Wallace and Richard Nixon, portraying the power and smarminess of both men and his portrayal of anti-war protester Norman Morrison will stay in your heart for a long time. Playing Iago to LBJ is David Coffee as J. Edgar Hoover, an untrustworthy anti-communist who convinces the president that only he can be trusted.
As I said before, all the talent behind this production are to be commended. They have taken a huge amount of material and have made it into compelling theatre. I will remember “The Great Society” for a long time. Thank you to everyone at DTC.
Dallas Theater Center
March 9 – April 1, 2018
March 21, 22, 25, 27, 28, 29 & April 1 – 7:30PM
March 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 & 31 – 8:00PM
March 17, 18, 24, 25, 31, & April 1 – 2:00PM
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre
AT&T Performing Arts Center
2400 Flora St, Dallas, TX 75201
For Information and Tickets call (214) 880-0202
Or go to www.dallastheatrecenter.org