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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

All the Way
South Coast Repertory
Review by Bill Eadie


Larry Bates and Hugo Armstrong
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR
Playwright Robert Schenkkan was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a work as part of the festival's American Revolutions Project. Mr. Schenkkan responded with a two-play cycle about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The first play in the cycle, All the Way, debuted in 2012 and the second play, The Great Society, debuted in 2014.

All the Way, which covers the time between Johnson's assumption of the U. S. presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his election to a full term in 1964, is the more popular of the two. Following the Oregon production, it went to the American Repertory Theatre in Boston and from there to Broadway where it won the Best Play Tony Award. It is also the more optimistic play of the two, as it deals with a period when Johnson was able to invoke the Kennedy legacy to push his agenda through a balky Congress.

South Coast Repertory opens its 2016-17 season with All the Way in a production that can't help but draw comparisons between the presidential politics of 1964 and those of 2016.

An "accidental" president who had wanted the job all along, Lyndon Johnson (Hugo Armstrong) was considered to be a Southerner in an era where the Solid South had voted democratic since Reconstruction. A former Senate Majority Leader, Johnson was selected as Kennedy's vice president to help win votes in the South, which might not prove to be so solid anymore. Johnson did his job, though reputedly he disliked the Kennedys (and, apparently, the feeling was mutual) and disliked being vice president because it carried no power.

Once becoming president, Johnson felt it was important to demonstrate his credentials as a bona fide liberal and push for a broad agenda of legislation that would fulfill Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind America where descendants of former slaves would be valued. But aspirations were one thing; getting the legislation passed was something else again.

There are personalities involved, too, who to some degree are as warring as any in Shakespeare's oeuvre. There's the current Senate majority leader Richard Russell of Georgia (Larry John Meyers); the minority leader Everett Dirksen (Hal Landon Jr.); and Hubert Humphrey (JD Cullum), the liberals' darling, with aspirations of becoming Johnson's running mate. And those are just senators. Johnson also dealt with the likes of J. Edgar Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), the FBI director; George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), the upstart governor of Alabama; and Dr. King (Larry Bates) himself. Lurking in the background was Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth), Kennedy's defense secretary, who periodically arrived with rumors of war in a place called Vietnam.

Director Marc Masterson's production catches the swirl of Washington politics by staging the play in an arena (scenic design by Ralph Funicello) reminiscent of the architecture of the memorials that line the National Mall. Characters come and go quickly, and interactions often are punctuated by exhibiting strength or probing for weakness. Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Bates, and Mr. Cullum each portray only one character. The rest of the cast ably doubles, triples, and quadruples. In their hands, the energy rarely lags, and the three-hour run time flies by.

Johnson was known as a force of nature, and while Mr. Armstrong started slowly at the performance I saw, he soon demonstrated his capacity in that regard. With the help of a group of at-odds advisers, Mr. Bates' King proves to be a worthy adversary. By contrast, Mr. Cullum's Humphrey is on his own, and Johnson is able to bully him quite successfully.

Even in the midst of a landslide victory over Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, Johnson obsessed about his support of civil rights losing him the South (and, he did lose it, opening the door for Republican contenders to use populist, racially focused appeals to win the presidency five times, compared to three for Democrats, in the years that followed). Admirably, Mr. Masterson sees Johnson's coming tragedy in the midst of victory. That tragedy is chronicled in The Great Society, and I hope that South Coast Rep will choose to stage this second play of the cycle as well.

South Coast Repertory presents All the Way, performing daily except Monday through October 2, 2016, at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Tickets available by calling (714) 708-5555 or online at www.scr.org.

By Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Marc Masterson, with Ralph Funicello, scenic design; Holly Poe Durban, costume design; Jaymi Lee Smith, lighting design; Charles Coes, sound design; Nathan A. Roberts, original music and sound designer; Shawn Sagady, projection design; and Joanne DeNaut, CSA, casting.

The cast also includes Matthew Arkin, Jordan Bellow, Gregg Daniel, Nike Doukas, Lynn Gallagher, Christian Henley, Tracey A. Leigh, Rosney Mauger, William Francis McGuire, and Darin Singleton.




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