In his time, Lyndon Johnson had a reputation for being brash, ruthless, and, at times, crude. Compared to what we’ve witnessed in the current presidential campaign, however, even the time LBJ pulled up his shirt to display for the press his scar after gall bladder surgery seems mild. Johnson was known for twisting arms to get things done. He was a master at negotiating when the odds were not in his favor. Yet his penchant to bully those around him (particularly his wife, Lady Bird), rankles. As the target of LBJ’s bouts of anger, Susan Rome shows us the gracious side of this first lady who, nonetheless must have suffered for what she was forced to endure.
Susan Rome as Lady Bird and Jack Willis as LBJ
All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning play, focuses on LBJ’s push to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Arena Stage’s production, expertly directed by Kyle Donnelly, has a tour de force performance by Jack Willis in the title role with a talented and energetic supporting cast. In a city that eats and sleeps politics, particularly presidential politics, All the Way will have no trouble attracting an educated and sophisticated audience. Those who remember LBJ will appreciate the playwright’s attention to historic detail. Everyone else will enjoy history coming alive in an exuberant way.
Except for Willis and Bowman Wright, Jr., who plays Martin Luther King, Jr., the other 15 cast members assume multiple roles. At times the entrances and exits are so swift, it’s a challenge to keep up with the characters. And because the play is presented in the round Fichandler Stage, snippets of dialogue sometimes get lost when actors are facing one direction. Still those are minor quibbles in a production that hits the mark multiple times.
Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey and Jack Willis as LBJ
Willis, who originated the LBJ role at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, last wowed audiences at Arena with his performance in Sweat. It’s up to him to carry this production and he manages that with ease. There’s certainly a physical similarity between LBJ and Willis, but it’s the way Willis carries himself and dominates the stage that transforms what might have been a mimic into so much more. “Everyone wants power and if they say they don’t they’re lying,” he booms, while grabbing the lapels of then Senator Hubert Humphrey (Richard Clodfelter). Humphrey, of course, was willing to put up with a great deal from Johnson, hoping to be selected as his running mate.
The play opens with Johnson assuming the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (He was sworn in on Air Force One just two hours and eight minutes after JFK’s death.) While Johnson was intent on pushing the passage of civil rights legislation to fulfill JFK’s legacy, he also fervently believed in equal rights. “Nothing will change in this country until Negroes can vote,” he says. Besides winning over Southern Democrats, Johnson worked to convince Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to support the bill.
JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s situation is similar to Johnson’s. He must use his persuasive powers to bring together his disparate group of supporters. These include Stokely Carmichael (JaBen Early), Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney), and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace). Shannon Dorsey plays King’s wife, Coretta, as well as activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Adrienne Nelson does double duty, playing Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, and Lurleen Wallace, wife of the Alabama governor (played by Cameron Folmar).
Once the legislation is passed, the second act concerns LBJ’s reelection. Even though there was fear about a backlash after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the weak candidacy of Barry Goldwater handed Johnson a landslide victory. The play ends with a celebration, streamers raining down on Johnson who finally won the office in his own way and on his own terms.
Photos by Stan Barouh
All the Way
1101 Sixth Street, SW