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LBJ With a Touch of Shakespeare

By: Raven Snook
Date: Feb 26, 2014


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Robert Schenkkan's politically-charged saga All the Way chronicles the first 11 months of Lyndon B. Johnson's unexpected presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The major historical plot points---the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the launch of the War on Poverty, a successful run to actually be elected POTUS---revolve around LBJ (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in his Broadway debut). So it's interesting that the three-hour play's most gut-wrenching scene is one of the few in which LBJ doesn't appear.

As real-life Congress for Racial Equality leader David Dennis, Eric Lenox Abrams delivers an impassioned speech at the memorial service for three young Civil Rights activists murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan (the same incendiary incident inspired the 1988 Oscar-nominated movie Mississippi Burning). "Are you sick and tired of this stuff like I am?" he cries out from the stage left box of the Neil Simon Theatre. "I'm not feeling forgiveness... I've got vengeance in my heart and I ask you to feel angry with me… We got to stand up! DEMAND our rights!"

Bill Rauch---who originally commissioned All the Way for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), where he serves as artistic director---says that intense monologue has consistently been one of the most potent moments in the show. (He's directed it three times: At OSF in 2012, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 2013 and now on Broadway). "I think part of why it's so powerful is the perspective it gives," he says. "LBJ is the central figure, so he's the one we focus on most of the time. But it's incredibly important to get a fully dimensional sense of the situation he's working in. When we feel the anger and the grief and the desire for social justice, the pressure LBJ is under has a whole different emotional weight."

In fact, the monologue is reminiscent of a Shakespeare soliloquy, with Dennis unleashing his raw, uncensored thoughts, and it turns out that's by design.

All the Way is part of OSF's American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, an eventual collection of 37 commissioned works inspired by the Bard's history plays. Rauch conceived the project when he joined OSF in 2007 and hired his longtime collaborator Alison Carey (with whom he cofounded Cornerstone Theater Company in 1986) to spearhead it. So far, 21 plays have been written and six produced, and it's telling that Schenkkan was the very first dramatist Rauch approached.

"Robert and I were originally matched up in 2002 by Libby Appel, who was the OSF artistic director at the time," Rauch remembers. "We immediately hit it off and worked very well together on a show called Handler [about snake-handling in a Pentecostal Church]. When I decided to create a body of new American plays that looked at our own history, to illuminate where we are and where we're going, I immediately called him."

It makes sense: Many of Schenkkan's works, notably his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, are rooted in U.S. history and also possess the epic quality Rauch was looking for. "It's so rare in contemporary American theatre to have plays that are packed with characters that chronicle history in the way that Robert does," Rauch says. "LBJ is a character of outsized appetites and contradictions. The spirit is very Shakespearean."

The three separate mountings of All the Way have been quite different. The script has evolved, the casts have changed, and Rauch needed to restage some sequences to accommodate the configurations of each venue, like the blocking for the aforementioned memorial scene. "Eric used to make his way up an aisle and weave his way around the audience," he says. "But the sightlines on Broadway don't allow for that. The people in the balcony wouldn't be able to see him, so it felt wrong. When we put him in the box, it made him visible to almost everyone in the theatre and became a very striking image. Then Eric had the impulse to run down the stairs from the box to the stage. He keeps shouting the whole time. When he disappears you wonder, 'What's he doing? Where's he going to show up? What's going to happen?'"

Another big change? Our country's political landscape, which Rauch believes impacts how the play is received. "We originally did it in a presidential election year, and I worried that was a big part of why it was so galvanizing for audiences in Oregon," he says. "I wondered if it would still be relevant. But like any great play, new layers of meaning are constantly revealed. When we did it in Cambridge, we were going into rehearsals right around the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech. Plus a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act had just been struck down by the Supreme Court. That made the play shockingly relevant. This year, it's the 50th anniversary of every event that happens in the play, events that completely changed the landscape of this country in a way that we are still living with today."

Although All the Way ends on a high note for LBJ, Schenkkan wrote a sequel, The Great Society, about his much more controversial second term, that premieres at OSF this summer. "It delves into the Vietnam War and all the events from '65 to '69," says Rauch. "It's a lot like Henry IV Parts I and II: The second play is a sadder story but very moving."

Still, Rauch thinks both plays are ultimately optimistic. "We all get locked into cynicism, we complain that nothing will ever change in politics," he says. "But these plays prove that's not so. Our country's history is made up of a series of revolutionary acts. We were born from one! It's important to remind ourselves that change isn't just possible, it's inevitable."


Photo by Evegenia Eliseeva

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.