Cranston takes audience ‘All The Way’ as LBJ
CAMBRIDGE — With Diane Paulus’ litany of successes as the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, the ART’s biggest challenge these days is making sure the buzz and the hype around many of its productions don’t overwhelm them.
As last winter’s ART hit “The Glass Menagerie” continues its Broadway run and
before the first whiff of a review, the ART had announced that the current run of Robert Schenkkan’s new play “All The Way,” at the Loeb Drama Center was sold out.
The good news is that “All The Way” is a sweeping, brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed look at the first year of the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, a turbulent time that began with the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 and ended with Johnson’s election to a full term.
It features a commanding performance by multiple Emmy Award-winner Bryan Cranston (”Breaking Bad”) as LBJ and a passel of fine supporting efforts, as well.
The year between Johnson taking the oath of office after the assassination was a series of delicate political balancing acts as Johnson strove to make history with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, and the various tensions that arose among several competing political factions.
LBJ, of course, was an accidental president, entering office with distrust between himself and the Kennedy family and the Kennedy holdovers.
Against that background, LBJ — a son of the South from Texas — decides to push for groundbreaking civil rights legislation, and what emerges is taut, tense storytelling for the length of the three-hour production.
Cranston brings his considerable star power to bear at the Loeb but then promptly buries his persona in the role of Johnson, the profane and powerful master politician whose ability to compromise and wheel and deal allowed him to pass ground-breaking legislation against heavy odds.
Cranston has not tried to closely mimic the Texans distinctive twang, but he does distinctly capture the look of the man and the many different sides and angles of the personality: at once caring, cajoling, exhorting, or dogged by paranoia.
“They’re all against me,” he says at one point. “The bastards would like me to walk out.”
He is almost torn asunder by the competing demands of the civil rights leaders, who are threatening to withhold black support in the election, and threats from Southern Democrats to split and walk away from the party.
The supporting performances are uniformly excellent, and at the head of the political class is Dakin Matthews as Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, LBJ’s “Uncle Dick,” his mentor and friend and leader of the Southern Democrats — the so-called “Dixiecrats” — whose split with LBJ over the Civil Rights Act was the beginning of the end of Democratic dominance of the South.
Reed Birney is also excellent as the decent — maybe too decent — Sen. Hubert Humphrey, whom LBJ often abuses in his role as ambassador to the liberal wing of the party, and whom he holds hostage in exchange for his inclusion on the 1964 ticket..
William Jackson Harper as the fiery civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael is another standout, as is Christopher Liam Moore as Walter Jenkins, the LBJ aide whose indiscretion forces him to become a political sacrifice.
Playwright Schenkkan offers an “inside baseball” look at how when making legislation, like sausage, the process can get pretty down and dirty.
Bill Rauch , a 1984 graduate of Harvard who went on to become co-founder of the Cornerstone Theater Company and is now artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, returned to Cambridge to direct the production.
A couple of quibbles. Schenkkan didn’t see fit to portray Bobby Kennedy in any way other than the odd mention and there was some seeming overemphasis with the role of George Wallace (Dan Butler) in the 1964 campaign.
And while LBJ’s relationship with FBI Chief (and master blackmailer) J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) is extensively explored, a couple of one-liners alluding to Hoover’s sexuality fall a bit flat — I kept waiting for the rim shot after one of them.
Still, those are but a couple of blips on the radar screen,
Christopher’s Acebo’s set allows quick movement between Congress and the Oval Office, and Shawn Sagady’s projections are another excellent example of the increasingly effective use of them as a theatrical art, allowing action to move in time and space effectively and quickly.
Cranston never wilts under the physical challenge of being onstage almost constantly for the length of the production.
And it’s a tribute to Schenkkan’s storytelling that we momentarily forget how it all came out and wait breathlessly to see if Johnson’s push for civil rights will cost him the election.
“All The Way” offers just a hint of Vietnam and what was to come in LBJ’s fateful second term. Do I smell a sequel?
Yes. “The Great Society” will be taking place at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next summer with Jack Willis, who portrayed LBJ in the first production of “All The Way.”
As for “All The Way,” if you’re physically up to it, I would recommend one of those standing room slots the ART may have left.
Or, if past few years are any indication, you could wait until it gets to Broadway.
The American Repertory Theatre’s production of Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way.” Directed by Bill Rauch. Set design by Christopher Acebo, costume design by Deborah M. Dryden, lighting design by Jane Cox, original music and sound design by Paul James Pendergast, and video projections by Shawn Sagady. Dramaturgy by Tom Bryant. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through Oct. 12. Americanrepertorytheater.org.