By Kay Kipling
When you consider that biographer Robert Caro has written four out of a planned five volumes on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it feels remarkable that playwright Robert Schenkkan has managed to condense one of the most significant years of Johnson’s long political career into a stage piece that runs about two hours and 45 minutes (with intermission). All The Way, opening the Asolo Rep’s winter rotating repertory season, does the work justice in an exciting production directed by Emily Sophia Knapp.
There are just so many facets to LBJ’s story that it’s daunting to even think about writing a play that could explain what the man did between November 1963, when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and November 1964, when he was elected president in his own right in a landslide.
When you consider the many real-life characters involved and the many steps it took to achieve LBJ’s landmark legislation of that year—the Civil Rights Act—Schenkkan’s accomplishment of making it all clear and relevant today (some scenes and dialogue fairly shout out to us in this 2016 election year) is even more impressive.
With a large ensemble cast of actors, led by the riveting performance of Nick Wyman as Johnson, All the Way tells that story with the use of some video projections that place us squarely in the time and place of the action, whether it be a Washington, D.C., legislative chamber, a rowdy political convention in Atlantic City, or a town in Mississippi where the issue of voting rights leads to tragedy. If you were alive in that time period and have vivid memories of the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. (A.K. Murtadha), J. Edgar Hoover (William Dick), Hubert Humphrey (Karl Hamilton), and rabid segregationists like George Wallace (David Breitbarth) or James Eastland (Don Walker), so much the better. But they and other figures, including Sen. Richard Russell (Joe D. Lauck), Johnson’s longtime mentor; his loyal aide, Walter Jenkins (Kevin Barber); and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Ernest Perry Jr.) are brought to distinct and compelling life even if you weren’t yet born in this era.
The action moves swiftly and surely under Knapp’s direction, and while there are moments of gravity, loss and triumph, there are also many moments of humor, as we watch Wyman sink his teeth into the role of the domineering LBJ, masterfully wheedling, cajoling, bullying and horse trading his way into what he wants. The question of what he really wants—and why—feels answered here, when Wyman/Johnson soliloquizes about his hardscrabble past and the injustices due to race and poverty he hated in his youth and saw at last his chance to fight in the White House. Vulgar, yes, ruthless, no doubt, and even vengeful is LBJ, but he’s full of juice.
The only real drawback to the production is that so much of the dialogue is shouted at a fever pitch. The heated environment of the ongoing battle may make that plausible at times, but it also makes one appreciate the play’s quieter moments, usually those between Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird (Denise Cormier), who comes across as acquiescent and yet still with feelings and a mind of her own.
All the Way continues in rep through April 9; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.