‘All the way’ with LBJ

First slide

President Lyndon B. Johnson was a complex man who was thrust into the presidency after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963.

Before being picked as Kennedy's vice-president, Johnson was the Democratic Senate Majority leader from Texas, and was known for his heavy-handed way of steering bills through Congress. Johnson could be kind, funny, cruel, thoughtful, ruthless and profane; sometimes in a span of minutes.

The Arena Stage play, "All the Way," written by Robert Schenkan and directed by Kyle Donnelly, spans the 12 months from Johnson's trip back to Washington from Dallas to his victory over Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. It's the story of Johnson and his mission to make progressive reforms in the United States.

His "Great Society" was a set of legislative actions meant to end poverty and racial injustice.

The play begins immediately after JFK's assassination, when Johnson (Jack Willis) and his wife, Lady Bird (Susan Rome), are returning to Washington from on Air Force One.

It's a dream sequence with a spotlight on Johnson as he recalls the death of Kennedy and the tenuous position the new president finds himself in.

"For this terrible moment, I wonder if I'm dead already, or buried alive," he said.

"Lady Bird" shakes his shoulders to wake him up as Air Force One is about to land in Washington.

From there on, Johnson is focused on his re-election and his desire to see that President Kennedy's Civil Rights legislation becomes law. He tries to balance the demands of King (Bowman Wright) and activists like Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace), Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early) and Roy Wilkins (David Toney) with the legislative realities of the time.

Johnson works with his soon-to-be Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (Richard Clodfelter) to help persuade reluctant Democrats to support the legislation.

Before Johnson was tapped by Kennedy to be his vice-president, Johnson was the Senate majority leader. Now he must work with democrats such as Humphrey to get his legislation passed. Johnson also arm-twisted many legislators by promising political "pork" for their states.

In addition to pushing his legislative agenda, Johnson also was fighting an uphill political battle against Goldwater in a campaign for re-election in November.

The acting is strong and the characters are believable. Willis created the role at the Oregon Shakespeare Theater before the play went to Broadway where it won several Tony Awards.

Even at two hours and 45 minutes in length, the play maintains its pace and keeps the audience's interest. Older theatergoers will appreciate the humor and the history. Younger ones may see parallels with this year's presidential election.

The play is not for children. There is excessive foul language and racially tinged rhetoric. It gives a sobering view on how legislation gets passed - at least 50 years ago.

Many consider Johnson a giant of American political life, a giant undone by the Vietnam War, but a man focused on making positive changes in American life.

"All the Way" is at Arena Stage through May 8.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016