Saturday, September 24, 2016

LBJ historidrama compels at Cleveland Play House

Our nation is in the midst of a national election, and local theatres have responded with a series of plays that examine various foibles and stories of political intrigue.  Ensemble is staging former County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones’ THE BLOODLESS JUNGLE  (September 15-October 2)  about a rising idealistic political star running for a pivotal Congressional seat.  The Musical Theater Project is featuring THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (September 21 & September 25), a play about Unionism with political undertones.  Cleveland Public Theatre is presenting 44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS (October 6-29), which showcases the life and times of the 44 Presidents of the United States,  featuring an all-female cast.  And, Cleveland Play House just opened ALL THE WAY (September 17-October 9), a Tony-Award winning drama that examines the power of one person to transform a country.

ALL THE WAY centers on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36 th President of the United States.  LBJ, was an accidental president, became commander-in-chief when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. 

Johnson, who seems like a tragic figure out of a Shakespeare play, had unbridled ambition and an appetite for power, women and food.  He was consummate politician who believed that “politics is war.”  He fought that war with cunningness, slander, blackmail, charm, and intimidation.

Johnson was a brilliant politician, but a flawed man.  A man of great convictions, vicious temper, foul mouth.  In opposition to his southern roots, the Texan was compassionate about granting and protecting the rights of the poor and underrepresented, including the “Negras.”

LBJ was responsible for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which basically insured that Negroes would be assured the right to vote. He championed The Higher Education Act, which among things integrated colleges and universities.  He fathered the “Great Society” which expanded health care, arts and culture, the environment, immigration, poverty, and civil rights.  Much of this irritated Southerners and rekindled their attitudes of hated toward those who started The War of Northern Aggression (the Civil War), which deprived those from the Land of Dixie from continuing their patterns of slavery, control of the Negroes, and their “way of life.”  He was basically responsible for turning the south into red states after many years of their being solid blue Democratic. 

Yes, the Johnson’s re-election motto, “All the way with LBJ” resonates strongly in Robert Schenkkan’s ALL THE WAY, a compelling historidrama about Johnson’s first year office.  A year whose ramifications are still present today. 

As with any work which combines fact with interpretation, there is no way of knowing whether some of the speeches, characterizations and depictions are accurate.

The play was commission by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, opened on Broadway in 2014, and won the year’s Tony Award, with Bryan Cranston winning the Tony for Best Actor in a Play.  A television film was presented on HBO on May 1, 2016.

ALL THE WAY is the first of two plays by Schenkkan on the Johnson’s presidencies.  The other, THE GREAT SOCIETY, premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014.

The Cleveland Play House’s production of the two-and-three-quarter-hour play (with intermission) develops well the author’s intention of producing a play about “morality of politics and power.”  It nicely illustrates his questions, “Where do you draw the line in terms of intentions and action?” and “How much leeway does a good intention give you to violate the law?”

Set designer Robert Mark Morgan follows the original play’s setting of “a semi-circular dais surrounding the central portion of the stage.”  This makes the space a coliseum for battle.  A battle that has Southern values, politics, politicians, the civil rights movement, and LBJ on trial. 

Dan Scully’s very effective projections changes the settings, adds historical footage and reinforces spoken ideas.  Michael Lincoln’s lighting highlights and focuses attention.

Unfortunately Jane Shaw’s sound design fails.  Even with microphones, due to the depth of set, the high ceiling, and weak projection, many lines were lost.  A check with people seated in various parts of the theatre confirmed this observation.

Giovanna Sardelli’s direction is focused and the visual effects of the staging work well.  The casting, which, in general, finds the personages, except for Steve Vinovich, who looks a lot like LBJ, not necessarily physically resembling the person’s they portray, has produced a talented company of performers.

Vonovich doesn’t portray Johnson, he is Johnson.  Jason Bowen doesn’t attempt to duplicate Martin Luther King, Jr. which may cause some to lose the powerful presence of the man, but MLK,Jr’s role in societal change are made clear.  LBJ’s  longtime top aid, Walter Jenkins, who caused a major stir when he was charged with disorderly conduct with another man in a public restroom in D.C., and caused a major problem for the Johnson administration, is efficiently portrayed by Chris Richards. 

To CPH’s credit, not only Richards, but Donald Carrier (Hubert Humphrey), Jeffrey Grover (Stanley Levison), Tracee Patterson (Muriel Humphrey), and Laura Starnik (Lady Bird Johnson), are area local professional actors in the cast.  Richards and Patterson are Kent State theatre graduates.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  ALL THE WAY is a well-written script that gets a strong production at Cleveland Play House.  In spite of some sound projection problems, the cast develops their characters and the themes of the play so well that anyone interested in good theatre and political history should be captivated.

ALL THE WAY runs through October 9, 2016, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to