Theater Review | THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Part 2 of Robert Schenkkan’s far-reaching, massive portrait of President Lyndon Baines Johnson is an epic tragedy that explores the tradeoffs and perils of governing through the unprecedented political upheavals and competing social priorities of late 1960’s America.
Following up on the wildly successful part 1 (ALL THE WAY), THE GREAT SOCIETY continues a profound and searching engagement with a key era of recent US history, some of the battle lines from which – particularly in regard to Congressional infighting over budgets – remain active today.
By looking back, Schenkkan examines who we are, asks how we got here, and dreams of what the United States could yet become.
(moves to Seattle Rep along with ALL THE WAY in December)
ASHLAND – It’s November 1964 and Lyndon Baines Johnson has just won a landslide (re-) election over sun belt neocon Barry Goldwater. The victory stokes Johnson’s confidence and appears to signal popular support for the raft of social programs and initiatives the 36th president inherited from Kennedy, chief of which was the recently enacted 1964 Civil Rights Act (stripped of its crucial voting rights component). As 1965 dawns, LBJ moves full steam ahead toward the next item on his to do list, which is the War on Poverty, to be followed (at some point) by the Voting Rights Act.
And then, as Johnson may have told it in his hill country, down home Texan delivery, the proverbial doodoo started to clog up the chicken house fan.
Over the next few years, when America truly seemed to be falling apart, Johnson found his legislative agenda caught in a tug of war between southern Democrats (soon to flee the party), northern liberals, and the growing power of organized black American groups. Meanwhile the American attack on Viet Nam was heating up, which limited available funds for other programs and also guaranteed that millions of middle class college students, still subject to the draft, were going to get deeply involved in active protest on numerous fronts. In short, it was a perfect storm of conditions to bring important, simmering national conflicts to a head and drive millions of people into the political forum in a way they had never experienced before. Welcome to the 1960’s. We hope you enjoy your stay.
To deepen the drama of the time, it was not only the established authority that was fracturing and facing revolt. In an interesting mirroring of Johnson’s dilemma and the competing priorities and constituencies that daily ate away at his political effectiveness, over in the black community Martin Luther King was himself caught in a crossfire between his SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Committee), dedicated to non-violence, and the emerging black power movement and more radical forces who were disappointed with King’s ability to deliver real reform and turning toward open promotion of violence. And so you had these two monumental figures, Johnson and King, trying to work together, each severely hemmed in by their own power bases, often making decisions based on what was possible or needed in the moment – which was not necessarily what they wanted to do.
And that’s what political power, Schenkkan’s main subject in THE GREAT SOCIETY, which opened last Sunday at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a spectacular production directed by Bill Rauch, is all about.
In the abstract, it’s fine to talk about what you wish you could do or achieve. But given the reality of events and political calculus, especially at a moment of such chaos as the late 1960’s, what are figures actually able to achieve in the daily fray? There’s a quote floating around somewhere in materials in Ashland to the effect that “The second you get power, it starts to slip away through your fingers.” We imagine a US president or movement leader like MLK to be all powerful. But reality is different. And a lot of the appeal of this latest installment in Schenkkan’s cycle is watching as both Johnson and King (to channel LBJ again) get dragged horribly by their respective horses toward outcomes and events that no one wanted. Maybe that’s what history is.
With so much to cover in 1965-1968, how does Schenkkan organize his narrative frame? To simplify: Act 1 covers the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Act 2 follows the Skokie march and riots in Chicago, and in Act 3 all action converges in King’s decision to turn publicly against Johnson’s war in Viet Nam, the setbacks of Tet, slashed budgets for Johnson programs, and LBJ’s ultimate decision to not run in 1968 and the (to be short-lived) ascent of Richard Milhous Nixon. If it sounds like a lot to cover, it is. The play could easily expand to twice the length and not fall short of material.
The style of epic theatre Schenkkan uses is familiar from THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, which covered 200 years of a family’s life in Appalachia and won the playwright a Pulitzer Prize way back in 1993. In THE GREAT SOCIETY, the entire 16 person cast sits on stage in a half ring of raked seats most of the time as witnesses to the main action. Actors stand and enter their scenes, then return to sit and watch. The effect is to heighten the theatrical event and suggest the different roles figures were playing – knowingly or not – at the time. Scenery is minimal, but a series of projected newsreel images throughout the show quickly convey the setting and the high stakes.
Also similar to THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, which is theatre’s version of an action movie if ever there was one, THE GREAT SOCIETY moves at top speed, hurtling onwards. There is hardly a slack moment in over three hours of drama, and for such a big story and enormous canvas, the approach works well. Each scene, new piece of information, or revelation is touched on and then quickly put aside. Perhaps we as the audience feel a little like contemporaries of the actual events as one thing after another happened, only to be replaced by something more urgent and consequential. Schenkkan is a master of one and two line scenes that quickly shift focus. Reading some of the dialogue on the page, you are struck by the brevity of the writing, but onstage with characters in motion and a lot of the forward-leaning drama occurring inside the audience’s minds as they absorb the impact of what just happened and anticipate what is coming, it all works brilliantly.
So who’s who in this larger than life tale? Many actors play more than one role, but here are a few of the big ones.
There’s Johnson, a large and booming Jack Willis. Willis expertly shuffles personnel, priorities, and the press, switching instantly back and forth between down home humor and seriousness. Willis is perhaps a bit too friendly in his portrayal of LBJ, who is very hard not to like here, even at the end. And yet there was something about either the man or the times that turned millions against him, which we do not completely understand here. We do not get to see the ruin that LBJ became. Here he seems a little too chipper to the end, cracking wise to the end when Nixon comes in ready to takeover. At times the war does come home to LBJ, such as during a terrible moment when his black secretary’s son is killed in Viet Nam. But the famously broken LBJ collapsed in anguish in the White House as he listens to recorded tape from Captain Charles Robb in Viet Nam is not one that makes an appearance in the play.
Kenajuan Bentley is an utterly mesmerizing MLK. You only have to listen to a line or two of King’s actual recorded voice and it sends shivers down your spine (or at least it does mine). Bentley, who was equally unforgettable in Lynn Nottage’s RUINED in 2010, brings the same gravitas visually to his portrayal of the doomed preacher. It’s very hard to look away from Bentley when he is on stage, so strong is the fascination of catching even a glimpse of the real MLK through him.
Schenkkan’s two play cycle is billed as being primarily about LBJ, but it is really about two equally tragic figures – Johnson and King. And you could argue that King is the more important and interesting of the two. Bentley is giving a dazzling performance here that is every bit as great as Willis’s and may actually be the more important one to the overall success of the project. In Act 2, as the march in Chicago looms and LBJ desperately urges MLK to hold his movement back and be more patient for change to come, the President says: “Rome was not built in a day.” King’s response is both poetic and prophetic: “But it can be burned down in one.”
Later, after the failure of the Chicago campaign, in one of the most moving moments of the play, we watch King as he thinks out loud to himself in front of his lieutenants and discovers where the real barriers – and thus areas to attack – are.
“I fundamentally misunderstood Chicago. It’s not about improving the ghettoes. You can’t. The problem, the real problem is this web of unspoken agreements between the city, the realtors, and the banks that keep our people trapped. We need to break out of these cement reservations. Why waste our time fighting over the pittance of poverty funds allocated to our broken down schools when we could just move into white neighborhoods where the schools already work!”
Of course, hearing that, any theatre person is instantly reminded of two other great American plays: Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN in 1959 (which King could have seen – did he?) and Bruce Norris’s CLYBOURNE PARK in 2010.
Peter Frechette is a hyper energetic, jittery VP Hubert Humphrey. The lot of the veep is always to simultaneously support the commander in chief but also actually do something of their own, and Humphrey darts in and out of the shadows, serving as a sounding board but also errand boy, taking initiative one moment only to get slammed down the next.
Danforth Comins shines as LBJ arch nemesis and yet supposed Democratic ally Senator Bobby Kennedy. LBJ and RFK are constantly at each other’s throats – or at least poised with daggers raised behind the other’s back.
As the gruesomely bigoted Governor George Wallace of Alabama, Jonathan Haugen channels cold hatred and calculating duplicity like nobody’s business.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, here ably played by Mark Murphey, is an earnest, immaculately organized corporation man, equally comfortable escalating the war or heading off to run the World Bank. Near the end, there is a devastating moment when McNamara, who has pushed LBJ into the Viet Nam commitment, clinically tells the President that, well, it hasn’t worked and we should get out.
Then there’s J. Edgar Hoover, the paranoid hobgoblin that LBJ put way too much trust in. Richard Elmore wears a frown you could park a tractor in. It must take real work to project such a sour look. Of LBJ’s many mistakes, you sense that one of his worst, for how it played into internal surveillance and Cointelpro, was his faith in “Jay”.
Longtime OSF vet Michael J. Hume plays Senator Everett Dirksen, Republican Senate Minority Leader from Illinois, with his usual cutting humor and zing. During one memorable drubbing Dirksen gives LBJ about budget cutting and spending on social programs (sound familiar?), LBJ says he’s going to close some military bases that are no longer needed to save money. Quick as a whip, Dirksen shoots back “None in Illinois, I trust.” Right there with him in brinksmanship, LBJ fires back a warning: “Still in the process of sortin’ that out.”
Denis Arndt is excellent as Chicago’s Richard J. Daley. Mayor Daley seems unflappable at first, but as marches and actions come to Chicago and Skokie ignites, he goes into war mode. It’s easy to imagine him dropping the hammer on protesters later in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention after what he experienced in 1965-66.
There are many more excellent performances in the large 16 person cast.
In the end, there is simply too much to cover in one play. In 1968 we skip ahead to the election, and the assassinations of RFK and MLK are not shown and feel like gaps. We need much more closure around those events than we could get in a few minutes of coverage, so maybe Schenkkan is right to put them off (for another future sequel?).
Good plays do not so much answer questions as ask them. And it is much to the credit of Robert Schenkkan and THE GREAT SOCIETY that even after over three hours of drama, you leave the theater buzzing with enough big, meaningful, unanswered questions to fill another three (or six, or 12). It is the interaction between the individual and “history” (which is a fiction that does not exist) that provides the most fertile dramatic material. All of history is nothing in the end but two characters talking about something – usually deciding what they are going to do next. Schenkkan makes the most of several taut, close up encounters between giant figures. Humorously, sometimes the answer about what to do, even when the stakes are as high as they can possibly be and the characters involved are national leaders, is one that may be familiar enough to the rest of us in our own lives: “I have no fucking idea.”
When the lights came on at around 4:15 PM on opening day and we had to file out into the screaming late July Ashland sun, I was a little sad that we weren’t heading off on a dinner break before returning to follow the story ever onward – through Nixon, and Ford, and Carter. And then maybe even closer to our own time? Schenkkan powerfully suggests that many of the issues at the center of the LBJ epic are still in play today. And the biggest story of all – what is going to happen next? – interests all of us.
The scope and ambition here to create a national theater for America is breathtaking. Where else can we have conversations like this today in the theater? Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the few places in America where stories of this scale can still be created and shared with a large audience. We are incredibly lucky as Oregonians to have this kind of national artistic treasure tucked away in the Rogue Valley.
America has made huge strides on racism and integration. We can take pride in how much better things are even if there is still a long way to go, especially in whitey white Portland. And yet sadly, when it comes to the war industrial complex, not only did we not learn anything from Viet Nam, the addiction to war has gotten even worse in our own time. If King were still alive today, surely we could learn something from him.
“How can I continue to try to persuade our desperate young men in these despairing ghettos to put down their weapons and embrace non-violence when their own country is the greatest agent of violence in the world?”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967
New York City
Review stream for THE GREAT SOCIETY:
8.28.2014 Regional Theater Review: THE GREAT SOCIETY by Joel Beers, Stage and Cinema
8.11.2014 THE GREAT SOCIETY revisits LBJ’s darkest days, but falls short by David Stabler, Oregonian
8.2.2014 THE GREAT SOCIETY of bustle of history lacking full LBJ picture by Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
7.31.2014 Just politics: LBJ again under the microscope at OSF by Robert Speer, Chico News & Reviews
7.28.2014 In enthralling GREAT SOCIETY, LBJ’s victory lap is cut short by Misha Berenson, Seattle Times