After touring the Lyndon Baines Johnson ranch in the Hill Country this fall, I was all revved up to see Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, the sequel to the playwright’s award-winning All the Way that took home a Tony, Drama Desk Award, and the ATCA/Steinberg Award for Best Play in 2014. All the Way also broke Broadway box office records before it made the jump to the screen as an HBO film (produced by Steven Spielberg, no less). In other words, I was all ready for The Great Society to be, well, great.
And some things about this production are great. Co-produced with the Dallas Theater Center, The Great Society spans a lot of territory, including political manipulation, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and even some of LBJ’s personal life between 1964 and 1968.
Onstage, the large white columns of Beowulf Boritt’s set change like chameleons to reflect everything from rain to the number of lives lost in the Vietnam conflict. Furniture looks like it sits on a real marble floor, with the design of the Resolute desk and sitting area equally well executed. The lighting is interesting as well, with Clifton Taylor shining red lights on the audience each time LBJ gives a soliloquy. Jen Caprio’s costumes—particularly for the female characters—are also spot-on. And did I mention the sound design and music by the Broken Chord collective? Excellent.
But the play’s the thing, and The Great Society is a rambling literary artifact that demands a lot from the audience—so much so, that some people left during intermission. LBJ is intrinsically interesting; we should have been hanging on to his every word, wanting more. But “more” in this play is more of the same, and I wished the entire trajectory would shift to the Martin Luther King, Jr. storyline, as all the actors involved in that subplot were superlative, especially Shawn Hamilton as King. He does what all history plays should do: present characters as completely believable but devoid of parody or caricature.
Although the audience feels the pressures LBJ contended with during the Vietnam War and simultaneously increasing domestic strife, it’s hard to connect with Brandon Potter’s portrayal of LBJ. His Hill Country yarns seem contrived and hokey, his accent not quite Texan, and his characterization hardly heroic enough to justify pathos upon his fall from political power.
Really, this LBJ comes across as simply another lying politician. Schenkkan might be trying to make parallels to the present, but it’s so obvious that I was left thinking more about the disunity of politics today than really understanding the unique situation of LBJ. After all, it was the ‘60s, and the nature of political infighting now has a different tenor than this play suggests.
There are some good lines. When discussing a healthcare bill for seniors, LBJ quips, “That’s not ‘Eldercare,’ that’s ‘I don’t care.’” I don’t know if LBJ said that, but I doubt it. Hubert Humphrey (Dean Nolen) explains, as if we don’t get it, that it is “Hard to fight a war abroad when you are fighting a war at home.” That’s the crux of this whole play from Schenkkan’s perspective: There were too many challenging fronts to handle, and LBJ’s failures led to Nixon’s ascendancy.
But if you really want to understand Johnson’s considerable achievements, they seem minimized on stage; you have to look at your program to see the breadth of his agenda, including the War on Poverty, and major strides in Civil Rights, environmental protection, education, and healthcare. The question hovering over the play is one of legacy: “What do you want left when you die?” But we mostly get a sense of LBJ as a master manipulator, until he was outwitted by others. It is a skewed picture.
If you go, go for the strong performances, and wish The Alley well as they navigate their way after Harvey, scandals, and changes in leadership. Maybe this will be a way to shake up the ensemble that has defined the Alley for so many years, just as The Great Society shows how the idealism of LBJ had to be tempered by harsh realities both in-house and far away.
Thru Feb. 18. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.