Robert Schenkkan’s 2012 play All the Way takes a complex man as its subject: Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Texas-born 36th president of the United States. It opens right after JFK’s 1963 assassination and continues through the next year, as Johnson works furiously—using every political weapon in his vast arsenal—to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. In the process, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover and Stokely Carmichael all make appearances.
“We’re approaching All the Way as if it’s a Shakespearean history play, with lots of dynamic characters, quick costume changes and fast-paced, intense scenes alternating between comedy and drama,” says Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theatre Center, who directs the play for its current run at Alley Theatre.
There’s more than a little of the Shakespearean hero to LBJ. “He was a complicated and at times flawed man thrusted into power,” says Moriarty, “who used every single bit of his considerable intellect and craftiness and creativity to actually accomplish more than any other president since FDR.”
To call LBJ “complicated” is to understate the matter. As president, he dug the country deep into the Vietnam War even as he pushed his progressive vision of the Great Society and worked tirelessly for civil rights—which he’d previously opposed.
The play, originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, debuted on Broadway to raves in 2014, winning two Tony Awards—for best actor and best play—and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Part of the reason for its success is that decades on LBJ remains a figure of fascination and controversy.
“He was the man responsible for sending the older brothers of my classmates to Vietnam,” says Alley actor James Black, who portrays LBJ in the production. “LBJ is, to this day, polarizing… Yes, he was bigger and larger than life, and his faults and failings were enormous, but so were his virtues and achievements.”
All the Way, Through Feb. 21. $27–67. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org