By Jordan Wright (Photo/Stan Barouh)
Robert Schenkkan’s exhilarating play “All the Way,” now playing at Arena Stage, allows us to step into the large Texas boots of our 36th president. Set between November 1963 and November 1964, it begins with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s sudden and untimely ascension to the presidency and his efforts toward passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
All the pivotal players of the period are represented, and the cast adopts many roles to fill in for the lesser characters. Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ — strident, bullying, terrifying yet indelibly effective — a larger-than-life president at the peak of his powers.
Then there’s Lady Bird Johnson (Susan Rome), Walter Jenkins (John Scherer), George Wallace (Cameron Folmar) and his wife Lurleen Wallace (Adrienne Nelson), Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Richmond Hoxie as the slithery, red-baiting J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as his henchman Cartha DeLoach, David Bishins as Robert McNamara and Tom Wiggin as Stanley Levison, the white civil rights activist.
Pitted against segregationist lawmakers, influence peddlers and power brokers were those black Americans who had been lobbying tirelessly for voting rights and anti-discrimination laws.
Maintaining peace between the activists, the protesters and church representatives were Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bowman Wright), NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney) and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace), who worked with younger, more outspoken SNCC student activists, led by Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early) and Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), to secure an opportunity to change the course of history. Shannon Dorsey becomes an integral part of this flawless cast as Coretta Scott King.
There are so many knockout performances to chronicle, but most memorable are Johnson, King, Lady Bird and Wallace, whose stump speech echoes modern-day rhetoric and will throw chills up your spine.
Under Kyle Donnelly’s superb direction, this ground-breaking production emerges as a riveting tale of back-door dealings, arm-twisting, personal threats and bullying, ameliorated by a hefty dose of schmoozing, drinking and ego stroking in the Oval Office.
Johnson made it his business to find everyone’s Achilles’ heel and capitalize on it, brutally if necessary. Regarding the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he declares, “I’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt!” The story presents Johnson warts and all — from southern charm and foul language to his innate political savvy.
No interaction between the characters is stagnant with set designer Kate Edmunds’ rotating presidential seal depicting the Oval Office. Players step on and off, circulating, converging and dispersing. It is hugely effective, lending an intense and immediate energy to the proceedings. Less effective are the multiple TV screens above the stage, so compelling is the action on stage.
When at last the bill sees passage after all of Johnson’s wrangling, he admits, “There’s no gracious losers. There’s no sore losers, just the walking dead.” There’s a whiff of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a memorable speech by civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, and a dramatic turn in recalling the tragedy of three students murdered while trying to register black voters in Mississippi.