'The Great Society' a bustle of history lacking full LBJ picture

Review: The din of history can trip up Robert Schenkkan's worthy ‘Great Society'

Jack Willis as President Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's "The Great Society." (Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

ASHLAND, Ore.

When last seen in Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way," Lyndon B. Johnson was being serenaded with "Happy Days Are Here Again." After brokering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with an iron fist and a good ol' boy smile, he managed to escape electoral backlash and trounce Barry Goldwater in the presidential election.

"The Great Society," the second part of Schenkkan's epic drama about Johnson's presidency, picks up where "All the Way" left off. The crowd is still chanting, "All the way with LBJ," but Johnson, that experienced political animal, wears a furrowed brow. He knows that no matter how sweet victory may be, in politics there's something even sweeter but much more elusive: survival with one's principles intact.

The play, which is having its world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where "All the Way" began, also under the direction of OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, is the conclusion of a project that on paper might seem to be exclusively for American history buffs and political junkies. A two-part, 61/2-hour retelling of Johnson's presidency doesn't exactly scream box office, but "All the Way" proved doubters wrong by becoming a bona fide Broadway hit and winning the Tony for best play (no matter that it was a depleted field).

Jack Willis, who played LBJ in "All the Way" at OSF before Bryan Cranston took the role to the American Repertory Theater and Broadway (winning a Tony for his galvanic portrayal), is once again commanding the desk of the Oval Office in a performance that is less flashy than Cranston's but commendable in its more contained conviction.

Running longer than three hours with two intermissions, the play is shorter than Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Johnson, but it strives to give an unusually complete stage picture of the conflicting forces that shaped and warped his time in office. This is both an educational boon and an artistic limitation.

There are moments when "The Great Society" can seem like a talking history book as it recaps various civil rights flash points (the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the Watts riots, the rise of the black power movement) and reviews political battles over Johnson's progressive domestic programs (the "war on poverty," Medicare and "aid to education") and his disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War. (Casualty statistics flash before us on Christopher Acebo's set, keeping us grimly mindful of the cost of muddled policy.)

My interest in the historical material was unflagging, but the contours of the drama need to be more sharply defined for the play's central insight into Johnson's character to have a more potent dramatic impact. Schenkkan, hewing to prevailing historical interpretation, understands that the attributes that made Johnson so formidable a politician were the very qualities that marred his presidency.

As depicted in "The Great Society," Johnson's love of deal-making, his uncanny ability to glad-hand and strong-arm simultaneously, his mastery of press manipulation and his willingness to compromise his conscience for incremental gains make him susceptible to the political sin of expediency, a weakness that becomes more conspicuous as the spiraling Vietnam War jeopardizes the financing of the social programs that give the play its title.

But this isn't a history play in the Shakespearean mode, in which chronicles of kings were transformed into action-packed tales harboring lessons on political behavior and the corruptibility of power.

Schenkkan allows history to take precedence over drama, which is to say that "The Great Society" relies too heavily on the factual record for its narrative. The "story" here is compiled from nonfiction sources rather than carved by imagination.

There's no denying the Shakespearean contradictions within Johnson's larger-than-life character, but his virtues and flaws aren't the sole determinants of the play's action. Schenkkan doesn't subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. The ground beneath Johnson's feet is ever-shifting, regardless of whether he takes a step or not. He exerts his considerable weight, but the world outweighs him.

The play credits Johnson with trying to make a positive difference, tallying his legislative achievements in the face of opposition from the left and the right. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) and Robert F. Kennedy (Danforth Comins) grow impatient with Johnson's delays and double-talk while the Republican senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen (Michael J. Hume), accuses Johnson of "running for Santa Claus" with his costly social programs.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Jonathan Haugen) is perpetually plotting new ways of forestalling Johnson's civil rights agenda. And Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) watches in horror as Johnson takes the advice of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Mark Murphey), who believes the only way to deal with Vietnam is to intensify America's military involvement. (Little wonder with this cast of characters that the play leaves hardly any room for Terri McMahon's Lady Bird, who might have drawn out more personal color from her husband.

Viewing this chapter of American political history from the vantage of today's governmental paralysis, Schenkkan may be forgiven for going soft on Johnson. He doesn't skirt the tragic waste, both economic and human, of the Vietnam War. (Acebo's set, which continues the witness gallery design scheme of "All the Way," piles up with debris as the war spirals out of control.) But the playwright's perspective is too balanced to see Johnson as a tragic figure.

Willis is not as adept as Cranston in driving the action through drowsy patches. His Johnson is a milder incarnation, more bark than bite perhaps, but only a fool would test him. He's neither a political nor a theatrical machine. Battle fatigue and disappointment register in his eyes even as he bluffs and berates at deafening volume. Indeed, Willis' Johnson remains sympathetic even when blood streams from his presidency.

It's a shame that the play's bustling agenda leaves hardly any time for the protagonist's inner reckonings. This is something a drama can uniquely provide. "The Great Society" demonstrates its interpretation of events but gives short shrift to the discoveries of a character and his moments of recognition. Art permits what life denies. "The Great Society" would be a stronger play if Johnson were made to confront himself at the end rather than simply greet his successor, Richard Nixon (Haugen), a figure who gets Johnson off the hook simply by walking onstage.

"All the Way," being more narrowly focused on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, swept us along with its historical inevitability. (That play is being adapted into an HBO movie, and it will be interesting to see whether the camera will coax Schenkkan into a deeper intimacy with Johnson.) "The Great Society," being more widespread in its concerns, needs more human textures to keep from seeming abstract.

The opening monologue, in which Johnson recalls attending the rodeo as a boy and being captivated by bull riders who knew they were going to be thrown but found joy in holding on for as long as they could, contains some of the play's most arresting writing. Here, the voice of the character isn't drowned out by the din of history, and Johnson, by dint of theatrical magic, lives again.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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