Lyndon Baines Johnson was a big bear of a man whose special skill as a politician was getting in a legislator's face and applying just the right pressure to just
the right vulnerability to win the necessary vote. Otherwise known as "the Texas twist," he used the maneuver to drive Civil Rights Act of 1964 into being.
In Robert Schenkkan's play "All the Way," a character study of LBJ from his first year as President, the Texas twist is prominent. Unfortunately, the entire production rests on the strength of the actor doing the twisting. C. David Johnson, a Canadian theater, film and TV veteran, is no Brian Cranston (winner of the Tony Award in the role). Whatever physical similarity Johnson the actor has to Johnson the President (hair and glasses make do) is wasted in his performance, which doesn't pack the necessary punch.
The most riveting turn is by Terence Archie as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously battled with LBJ but took a more pragmatic route than some of his colleagues urged. In scenes with Jordan Barbour as Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Laurence Curry as Stokely Carmichael, Archie is a fully-formed, entirely credible MLK. His bearing, cadence and accent ring true. King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, played side-by-side with LBJ's address to a booing crowd in New Orleans, is a stirring highlight.
Schenkkan wisely avoids replicating some of the iconic images of the time, including Johnson's swearing-in on the flight back from Dallas after the Kennedy assassination. Instead, there's a heavy dose of LBJ working the phones, cajoling, needling, threatening his Dixiecrat colleagues and invoking cloture.
The tiered stage is bare but for a table, a podium, a chair, a bed. Spotlights and effective use of black-and-white video of the characters overhead allows the audience to simultaneously witness a live and televised version of notable events. Spare use of news footage — police dogs and fire hoses unleashed on black protestors, political conventions and such — helps track the timeline. Director Anthony Powell has squeezed as much life from a dense public policy piece as possible.
Legislative and procedural details can make certain scenes feel like a civics lesson (how much do you want to know about the cloture vote, the Senate's procedure for breaking a filibuster?), but the personalities beam through — notably ever-supportive Lady Bird Johnson (Kathleen McCall), obsessed J. Edgar Hoover (Steve Brady), veep-aspiring Hubert Humphrey (James Newcomb) and whack-job Strom Thurmond (also played by Newcomb).
The show takes its title from the campaign slogan, "All the way with LBJ!" but there's a note of irony, too: the country made great strides in the '60s thanks to LBJ's undying belief in doing the right thing, but in the age of Black Lives Matter, there's still a ways to go. For some, the Great Society remains a distant dream.
That's not the only political undercurrent resonant in this election year, as the George Wallace and Barry Goldwater campaigns find echoes in 2016 Donald Trump, et al. ("If I'm so bad you can join Barry's little Nazi Party!" LBJ says.) References to the "socialist crap" of the era and the "kidnapping" of the Republican Party by extremists feel ripped from today's headlines.
When, near the end of the second act, Robert McNamara (Paul DeBoy) hands the president a top-secret communique from Saigon, we know what's coming. The paranoia and isolation the president has felt to that point is about to multiply. All of the progress on civil right is about to be compromised by missteps in an impossible foreign policy. The country is about to learn the word "quagmire."
But the play stops short, leaving us to ponder the deep-seated need of this poor young man from the Texas hill country, who called himself an "accidental president." We observe his mastery of the art of legislative politics, but what drove him to push for re-election to the highest office in the land? Unpacking that psychological puzzle is something any number of books (see Robert A. Caro) and documentaries (see PBS's "American Experience") have done better.
"ALL THE WAY" | 3 stars | Drama By Robert Schenkkan, directed by Anthony Powell. With C. David Johnson, Terence Archie, James Newcomb, Philip Pleasants, Kathleen McCall. Through Feb. 28 at DCPA The Stage Theatre. Tickets start at $32 at denvercenter.org.