Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Nether
The play covers the period from November 22, 1963, when Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, through the 1964 election, when Johnson won the presidency on his own. It was a tense time, driven by domestic concerns about the civil rights movement and uncertainty about the U.S. role in Vietnam, and Johnson knows his views deserve to prevail. The problem is, his antagonists think the same thing.
Willis, who originated the role of LBJ at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Bryan Cranston earned a Tony for the Broadway production), dominates the proceedings as he must. A physically large man with an overpowering presence, he gives a magnetic performance, charming, cajoling, and twisting arms as he drives the Civil Rights Act to ensure Kennedy's legacy. He hides his fears and worries behind a façade of resolve and almost poetic bursts of profanity.
The other members of the sizable cast are accomplished, but most of them stay in Willis' shadow. The notable exceptions are Bowman Wright, impassioned as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a few seasons back, he played King in Arena's The Mountaintop); the attention-grabbing Cameron Folmar as George Wallace, the swaggering, bantam-size Alabama governor determined to stop the Civil Rights Act and maintain segregation; and Richmond Hoxie as the implacable FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.
Director Kyle Donnelly makes the most of the Fichandler Stage's in-the-round configuration with Kate Edmunds' scenic design, which places the action on a central circular platform with walkways leading to the four corner exits. In this way, actorsmost of whom play numerous rolescan enter and exit unobtrusively or stand quietly watching the central action, allowing for a cinematic flow of action. Banks of television screens show news footage and follow the timeline of the action: for example, how many days until the election or the length of time of a filibuster.