Just politics

LBJ again under the microscope at OSF

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Jack Willis) confer during OSF’s production of The Great Society.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Jack Willis) confer during OSF’s production of The Great Society.


OSF's world premiere of The Great Society shows through Nov. 1.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, Ore.

Last Sunday, July 27, theater critics from all over the United States filled the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. They were there to view the world premiere of The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to All the Way, his acclaimed look at the first year of the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency.

All the Way, which also premiered in Ashland, in 2012, did something almost unheard of these days: It had gone on to Broadway, where musicals like Jersey Boys reign, and created box-office magic with a straight-ahead historical drama. It was, in a word, a hit.

Along the way it garnered rave reviews and picked up Bryan Cranston, star of Breaking Bad, to play its central character, LBJ. And it won numerous awards, culminating in Tonys for best play and best actor.

OSF played a huge part in this success story. Its artistic director, Bill Rauch, directed all three stagings of All the Way, as well as this production of The Great Society. And many of the same actors in the OSF stagings will go to Seattle later this year, when the Seattle Repertory Theatre will present both plays in rotation.

Viewers there will be able to see the plays side by side and no doubt will notice that, for all their similarities, they have one major difference. As Schenkkan has said, “All the Way is drama; The Great Society is tragedy.”

All the Way ends in a moment of triumph, LBJ’s lopsided 1964 victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater for the presidency. That win came at great cost, however: To appease Southern lawmakers, Johnson had deleted voting rights from his greatest civil-rights achievement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, he sowed distrust among black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

As The Great Society begins, Johnson is working to regain that trust by pushing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. He’s also set to launch his historic “War on Poverty” by creating a variety of federal programs, from early education to medical care for the elderly (Medicare).

It’s remarkable that Johnson, the ultimate political animal, was such an idealist at heart. He truly wanted to make the country better, and he was willing to do what it took—“It’s not personal,” he famously said, “it’s just politics”—to reach his goals.

All the while, though, the conflict in Vietnam is costing more and more in lives and treasure and polarizing the nation, even as it torments LBJ (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”). Blinded by ego, however, Johnson refuses to become the president who “lost Vietnam to the communists.”

As it turns out, LBJ can’t have both “guns and butter,” and his social programs are killed to finance the war. In the end, reviled on all sides, he chooses not to run for re-election in 1968, setting the stage for Richard Nixon.

Schenkkan sees LBJ as a Shakespearean figure: “The size, the ambition, the appetite, the hunger, the physical size—there’s something almost Falstaffian about him,” he told The Austin Chronicle.

Jack Willis, who returns to the role after playing LBJ in the OSF’s All the Way, doesn’t have his physical size. Few men do. But, like LBJ, he grew up in rural Texas, so he has a feel for the man and an ear for his twang. It doesn’t take long for Willis to dominate the stage much as LBJ dominated those around him.

Willis is backed up by 16 excellent actors who play a total of 37 roles, from Lady Bird Johnson (Terri McMahon) and Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) to Coretta Scott King (Bakesta King).

History moves fast when it’s condensed, and this play covers four years that included assassinations, urban riots and a war that grew like a cancer. There are times when it seems too abrupt, but it never fails to be a fascinating time-capsule trip to one of the most painful but important—and dramatic—periods in American history.