The attempted creation of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Great Society,” encompassing the passing of landmark legislation from the Voting Rights Act to Medicare to the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, was, without any doubt, a massive undertaking. Bringing the story of Johnson’s dream—partially derailed by the ever escalating war in Vietnam—to the stage, as the Asolo Rep is now doing, feels like a task of almost similar proportions.
With a huge cast of characters ranging from congressmen to civil rights leaders to Alabama state troopers and Vietnam soldiers, and a time span of four tumultuous years, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society is perhaps bound to be messy and, at times, rushed. (The playwright’s telling of just a year in Johnson’s life following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, All the Way, was more compact in its time frame, but even it was packed with events.)
While the Asolo Rep’s production of The Great Society is never boring, it suffers in dramatic impact from the sheer enormity of getting everybody on and offstage to deliver their dialogue, often as multiple characters, some famous, some not. Director Nicole A. Watson certainly keeps the action, set in Washington, D.C., Selma, Alabama, Watts, California, Chicago and, briefly, Vietnam, moving at a fast clip. But the play leaves virtually no room for character development or many moments to fully take in the import of some speeches or events. There’s just too much story to tell.
That said, The Great Society can impress us. Firstly, of course, there is the tragic character of Johnson himself, genuinely committed to his efforts to improve the lives of his fellow Americans but unable to predict how many of them will turn on him as the war death toll rises. Stepping into this daunting role well into rehearsal, Matt DeCaro never stumbles and delivers Johnson’s trademark political shrewdness and personal vulgarity with relish. He may not resemble LBJ physically or be quite the dominant presence the man himself was, but he acquits himself with skill.
The rest of the cast, which is packed with third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory students, varies in their abilities to convey real historic figures. Some of the students, such as Brett Mack as the Boston-accented Robert F. Kennedy, or Rob Glauz as Marine (and Lynda Bird Johnson beau) Charles Robb, convince. Others just don’t feel mature enough for their characters. Denise Cormier, who played Lady Bird here in All the Way, is given less to do this time around but does it well; ditto William Dick as J. Edgar Hoover, upon whom Johnson increasingly comes to rely. A.K. Murtadha reprises his role as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he is once more effective as a man committed to nonviolence yet always involved in a tug of war not only with Johnson but with more radical leaders of the civil rights movement.
Eric Hissom is believable as Sen. Everett Dirksen (thanks partly to the help of his gray/white wig) and David Breitbarth is appropriately smooth and sickening as Alabama Gov. George Wallace (although some in the audience may be temporarily confused when he switches gears to portray Richard Nixon). Tom Coiner can be touching as the well-meaning Hubert Humphrey; Christopher Kelly does not quite succeed as Robert McNamara (although that may be due in some measure to the simplistic equation here: Humphrey=good, McNamara=bad).
Under Watson’s direction, the rest of the cast works fervently to present a host of other “ordinary” people caught up in the struggles of the times. Whether you lived through those times, or are too young to recall them, The Great Society is indeed a history lesson.
The Great Society continues in rotating repertory in the Mertz Theatre through April 2; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.