‘The Great Society’ Sets The Stage On Fire

I really loved Arena Stage’s last season production of All The Way, the story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s ascent from Vice President to the Oval Office and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, I looked forward with Great Anticipation to Robert Schenkkan’s sequel play, The Great Society. Arena Stage doesn’t hold back – this production literally sets the stage on fire.

The Great Society chronicles LBJ (Jack Willis) all the way from his hard-fought (re)election in 1964, through the turbulent racial tension of 1960s America, including Selma, Watts, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s battle with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. LBJ’s holy grail is his domestic program, pushing legislation on health, education, poverty, wilderness preservation, environmental protection, and civil rights. Yet Vietnam keeps creeping up to whisper in the Presidential ear in the form of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (played with oily perfection by Tom Wiggins). With the faultlessness of hindsight, we witness the relentless cost exacted by creeping escalation of the war in Vietnam, and social unrest at home. You can’t help watching and wondering what this dynamo might have accomplished, but for the Vietnam War. But for….

As with its precursor, the play shines when showcasing LBJ as the master puppeteer, a folksy-until-he-isn’t good ole’ boy underestimated by the northeastern elite at their peril. Jack Willis is incredible in both performance and stamina as he prowls the stage, capturing LBJs animalistic presence, genuine domestic idealism, hostility to enemies, insecurity, rage, power, and weakness. He is supported by fine ensemble performances. Bowman Wright is heated yet controlled as MLK Jr., contrasted by fiery Jaben Early as Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Black Power movement. Cameron Folmar nails his portrayal of LBJ’s various adversaries, from George Wallace to Richard Nixon, with a Protean changeability. John Scherer accomplishes the difficult feat of accurately portraying LBJ’s nemesis Senator Robert Kennedy, without falling into cartoonish jaw clenching. Richmond Hoxie’s sinister J. Edgar Hoover makes you want to take a shower and check your phone for taps. Lawrence Redmond manages the trick of being simultaneously present and absent as Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Kate Edmunds’ staging is simple – a circular Presidential seal across which roll the Oval Office, dingy hotel rooms, the bloody battles of Vietnam, the bloody race riots and anti-war protests of America. Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s costumes center you in time and place. Aaron Rhyne’s projections are a highlight. But let’s be honest, it’s the Molotov cocktails, fire, blood, and explosions that you’ll tell your friends about over brunch.

Where Director Kyle Donnelly’s direction goes a little sideways is with LBJ’s devolution from power and confidence. Is his paranoia a descent into madness? Tormented grief? A lack of vision hobbles these scenes, resulting in hyperbolic scripting worthy of Hamlet and poor Yorick’s skull. One doesn’t have to put finger to temple and ponder the meaning of a corpse slowly dragged in a bloody circle around the stage (so slowly in fact, you have time to lose engagement and try to figure out where the blood pump is concealed).

The Great Society is a raw and moving play for history buffs. The level of detail is both its boon and its curse, as it can feel long at times. The script misses the taut but positive triumph of All The Way, instead presenting a sober lesson in mistakes made and the human costs therein. Flawed mortals continue to daily play out an inexorable conflict between reality and idealism on the world stage. If painful at times, hope we may that leadership will benefit from the meaty bonfire of humanity and politics that is The Great Society’s history lesson.

The Great Society is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s Fichandler stage through March 11, 2018 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.

Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

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