All photos: Wesley Hitt / Courtesy TheatreSquared
Upon the passing of comic legend Gene Wilder last week, I heard a story recounted several times. Wilder, we were told, only agreed to take on the role of eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka if he could do his opening sequence in a particular way. It went like this: As Wonka approached a crowd of people gathered at his factory, the supposed recluse walked with a limp, the mark of old age or some injury. He then completed a barrel roll, only to pop up able bodied. The idea, Wilder said, was to make sure no member of the viewing public could ever trust Wonka again, that perhaps deceit was an essential part of his character.
I kept thinking about this idea as I watched TheatreSquared’s production of the Tony Award-winning play “All the Way” by Robert Schenkkan. Instead of Wonka being the untrustworthy provocateur, we have in that central role Lyndon Baines Johnson, better known as LBJ, and in this case portrayed to sometimes stunning accuracy by actor Mitch Tebo. And instead of Wonka’s factory full of elvish workers, LBJ has a cadre of political junkies to call upon to do his bidding.
What: TheatreSquared’s “All the Way”
When: Wed-Sun through Sept. 18
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
The parallel isn’t perfect. But that untrustworthiness, and the lingering dramatic wonder about what our central character is going to do next, permeates the stage show, which runs through Sept. 18 at Nadine Baum Studios in Fayetteville. We sit back and watch because we realize they are capable of anything, and we never know exactly what comes next.
“All the Way” takes its name from the slogan LBJ used during his re-election campaign of 1964. It takes its drama from the never-ending circus of backroom political maneuvers that makes our country run or bogs it down, depending on your point of view. It’s a particularly fascinating play to watching during this presidential election cycle. In many ways, 1964 feels a lot like 2016, with talk of who to include in political coalitions, how to make a party convention work in your favor and how to make the man (or in our current case, woman) running against you look their worst.
The play premiered in 2012 and discusses the last month of 1963 and most of 1964, but several of the lines feel plucked out of the headlines today. LBJ tells us what a man does on his own time is his own business, just weeks after disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner found headlines again courtesy of another sexting scandal. Another character, discussing the urgency of passing a civil rights bill, tells those gathered that he is “sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men killed by white men.” It’s a story we’re still hearing 52 years later.
LBJ was well known for his powers of persuasion, using something historians called “The Treatment” or something Schenkkan labels “The Texas Twist.” Whatever it is called, the method works via series of intimidations, threats, outright lies, manipulations and using the press to your advantage. Or, in other words, politics.
Photo: Wesley Hitt
“All the Way” is fascinating in the way “House of Cards” or “Scandal” or even “Veep” are popular – because behind the much-manicured veneers of presidential politics, there’s some crazy stuff happening under the surface we never get to see. Make no mistake – “All the Way” is fictionalized, too. Sort of. I found myself wondering which of these statements were lifted from actual speeches by LBJ and which of them were stitched into the plotline to keep things moving forward. That’s a credit to Schenkkan, the playwright, and I left the show feeling I had some work to do in researching the presidential election of 1964, which followed closely on the heels of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In particular, I need to research if President Johnson was so short tempered, and if he yelled and cursed as often as the play implies. Because LBJ swore a lot as a character in “All the Way,” with a particular emphasis on having his testicles cut off by those who opposed him or returning the favor for those who wronged him.
The play is about many things, but key to the plot is the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the lasting effects of the political allegiances that formed in support or opposition of that bill. There’s a history lesson that sneaks into the show as a result, and several worthwhile reminders about how the political process works. We watch from the sidelines as 17 actors – 17! – play many more roles on stage. It’s such a dizzying number of characters and scenes, with names such as J. Edgar Hoover, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace among those featured in the show. Names in white letters were projected above the characters upon their introduction, but I still found it tough to keep up with everyone. This is exacerbated by having actors play multiple characters with minimal costume changes. I don’t know a novel approach for solving that, by the way. It’s a reminder you need to stay sharp during the show. “All the Way” is a play you have to work at watching, with multiple characters, locations and likely your own shifting allegiances for and against the positions. It’s also a lengthy play, with a runtime of three hours split over two 90-minute acts. Plan your snack and restroom schedule accordingly.
Considering the length, I found several parts of the show to be extraneous, particularly in the second half. If I have a primary complaint, however, it’s that the relationships and politicking in the Johnson household isn’t developed enough. There are criminally few interactions between LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson. And those we do see are unsatisfying. Lady Bird expanded the role of First Lady in her time in office, forging a path other First Ladies would follow. Are you telling me that she didn’t have influence on her husband’s decisions, or didn’t have some keen insight on the forces that drove him? I know it makes little sense to advocate for a shorter, more streamlined play and then ask for an expanded role and dialogue from a character, yet here we are.
One reason I wanted more interaction between this husband and wife pair is because I wanted to know more about Lyndon Johnson and his core beliefs. We are left wondering if LBJ actually wanted a Civil Rights Bill to pass because he wanted human rights for America’s growing black population or if he wanted a Civil Rights Bill because he desperately wanted to be president and needed the support of black voters. We’re even left unsure if he wanted to be president, which him threatening to drop out while simultaneously working tirelessly on the election effort.
We instead get ambiguity, one of the unfailing tenets of politics. Could anyone trust LBJ with anything? To get a bill passed, maybe, and to win an election, quite certainly. And to make us think for decades to come.