Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the more fascinating characters to ever populate the halls of Washington D.C., since he combined the raw, crotch-grabbing energy of a good ol’ boy from rural Texas with the liberal leanings of a man who deeply cared about the disadvantaged. Try finding a mixture like that in today’s polarized political landscape.
And in All The Way by Robert Schenkkan, the colliding aspects of LBJ’s personality are displayed in clear and sometimes devastating detail. Set in the mid-1960s after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and just a year before the next presidential election, the play offers an almost blow-by-blow description of how Johnson horse-traded and bullied congressional leaders to pass his Civil Rights Act.
It all plays out on Robert Mark Morgan’s breathtakingly simple set, composed of grandstand-like levels encircled by a curving wall where photos are displayed. With a large circular shape hovering above, the scenic design provides the feel of the halls of government without ever getting too specific. And these halls are populated with all the people who made that time so wrenching, triumphant and memorable.
As LBJ, Steve Vinovich bears a striking resemblance to the “accidental president” as he browbeats and strokes Hubert Humphrey (a nicely quivering Donald Carrier), a liberal senator from the north whom Johnson clearly enjoys tweaking at every opportunity. An expert at manipulation, LBJ does this with most people oiling inflated egos here and sticking a shiv in there—whatever the situation calls for. In this way, he maneuvers around his old pal Senator Richard Russell (a sly Stephen Bradbury), rabble-rousing Governor George Wallace (Greg Jackson) and Dr. Martin Luther King (stately Jason Bowen).
Vinovich’s Johnson displays this bifurcated approach even with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, whom he often dismisses rudely even as he seems to clearly care for her. As Lady Bird, Laura Starnik captures the look and feel of this woman who put up with a lot from the man she loved.
The first act of All The Way (those words are taken from the chant that accompanied Johnson during his own campaign for the presidency), is quite compelling as Johnson cajoles multiple D.C. players as he finds a way to sell the Civil Rights Act to both southern racists and black militants. In the second act, when LBJ is running for the presidency against Barry Goldwater, the issues are not as stark and the momentum of the play gets tangled up in some arcane negotiating around seating African-American delegates at the Democratic Convention.
There are also some characterizations that seem to fall a bit short. As the intense Stokely Carmichael, Biko Eisen-Martin doesn’t exhibit the live-wire energy of this man who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And Lou Sumrall doesn’t leave much of an impression as Secretary Robert McNamara. But some of this has to do with a play that attempts to touch a few too many bases, leaving several characters dangling with not enough lines to establish their personalities.
Still, this is a play about one man. And the wildly contrasting aspects of LBJ’s persona are brought out powerfully, thanks to Vinovich’s performance and the crisp direction by Giovanna Sardelli. For those who wonder how our government ever got anything done, this show offers a revealing look at how power can be used to achieve something good. It’s a thought worth contemplating in these days when compromise is seen as treason by many in Congress.
All The Way
Through October 9 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.