Arts theater review

Presidential dilemmas

An exploration of the issues Lyndon B. Johnson faced in 1963

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A scene from All the Way, an A.R.T production about Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year as President of the United States.
Evgenia Eliseeva


All The Way

Directed by Bill Rauch

Loeb Drama Center

64 Brattle St., Cambridge

American Repertory Theater

Through Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013

Take the T to Harvard Square, walk down Brattle Street just far enough to escape the loud bustle of tourists, and you will find yourself at the Loeb Drama Center, home to the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). It’s difficult to imagine that such a star-struck theatre could exist on such a quiet street, but the building — a typical example of modern architecture, and easily overlooked — has housed many well-known names and acclaimed performances. Zachary Quinto played Tom in a staging of The Glass Menagerie that ran this April and March; in June, the A.R.T.’s production of Pippin claimed ten nominations and four wins at the 2013 Tony Awards. And on Sept. 20, I had the opportunity to view a play of similar casting and literary caliber: All The Way, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, and starring Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame.

As an avid fan of Breaking Bad, I was eager to watch Cranston perform live in a drama of Shakespearean proportions, where he plays a beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson who must balance his struggle for reelection with his fight for civil rights.

In many ways, it’s a dilemma with circumstances and characters as strange and eclectic as that of Walter White. There’s LBJ, a Southern man who has worked desperately to become president for his entire life, only to have the office thrust upon him in the most unexpected of ways. There’s Martin Luther King Jr., played by actor Brandon J. Dirden, who must hold together a movement that houses different views on the morality of confrontation, and who must also hold together a marriage under pressure — while maintaining a mistress. There’s Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who must obey orders of the President by law and yet whose attitude towards racial equality is cool, to say the least — and who sees MLK as a philandering hypocrite. And of course there’s the cast of towering historical figures without which any tale of the era would be incomplete: Stokely Carmichael, Robert McNamara, Strom Thurmond, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among many others.

By the weight of these names alone, it’s clear that this is a story about a gripping and chaotic period of American history — and Schenkkan doesn’t hesitate to launch us through it at a startling pace.

At the beginning, the speed can be disconcerting. We are first introduced to LBJ as he reclines, asleep aboard Air Force One and reminiscing about his aunt’s nightmarish accounts of Indian raids. That scene quickly ends and in the next few minutes, the audience is rushed through a short talk between LBJ and the First Lady, a speech, and a frantic series of phone calls — one after another — through which the characters are introduced, and it’s made evident that the President is besieged from many sides. It’s a velocity that’s maintained through the entire play, and while it requires some suspension of disbelief at first, an unflagging momentum is quickly established which kept me rapt through the entire three hours.

The technical trickery that allows for such a clipping pace is a fairly static stage, with a large video screen that serves as the backdrop, and allows for almost instantaneous scene changes. Surrounding the center of the stage is a semicircle of terraced wooden seats of the type Congress usually occupies. It’s an interesting configuration that’s utilized thoroughly throughout the play.

For one, the logical completion of the half-ring of seats is the audience, and this immersion is capitalized upon extensively, with members of the cast walking down aisles while shouting and handing out pamphlets. To have actors carrying signs and shouting Civil Rights slogans pass right by you, and memorably, to have everyone crane their necks to see one yell a heated, emotional speech from the back of the theater proves to be an effective way to throw the audience into the arena while emphasizing the impact of the characters’ actions. A parallel of this also takes place on the stage, where the seats are never empty but always occupied by a few silent observers who occasionally underline words being spoken with simple movements, such as by crossing their arms in unison, or by listening in with a tape recorder, as Hoover does for MLK’s conversations.

A similar partitioning of the stage is also sometimes done by having two scenes juxtaposed and occurring at the same time. It can be a powerful tool in this play, increasing the tension and bringing about a sense of dramatic irony — such as having LBJ and McNamara argue about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident as the body of a missing Civil Rights worker is discovered and disinterred in front of a crimson-orange backdrop. At other times it can also be distracting, as the audience is forced to flit their attention back and forth between two different things. I use “forced” because each combination of engaging actor coupled with gripping dialogue that is presented demands the audience’s attention.

Dirden’s MLK perhaps lacks some of the calm irreproachability of the real life pastor from Alabama, but he doesn’t fail to summon goose bumps with the power of his speech. Bryan Cranston is no six-foot-four Texan, but he still pulls off the infamous “Johnson Treatment” surprisingly well. Anyone familiar with Breaking Bad is familiar with Cranston’s remarkable ability to captivate during scenes of one-on-one confrontations; in All The Way, his talent shines through yet again — except this time, it’s not Jesse that he’s cajoling or shaking down, but Uncle Dick Russell or an unfortunate senator.

The role of LBJ is a demanding one that displays the full genius of Schenkkan, and Cranston certainly fills it well, roaring with anger, dogged with paranoia, or agape with beleaguered despair one moment and snapping off trenchant, crass witticisms one after another the next. The dark, coarsely humorous lines of the play, often delivered shortly after a tragedy has struck, are tremendously well-written and always elicit a response from the audience. Cranston, true to his prior experience in comedy, conveys them impeccably.

Together, the alternating highs and lows, wins and losses, hilarities and deceit weave and mesh together into a story — a tale of many compromises. There is never a clear victory — the Civil Rights Act alienates the South, and Johnson’s reelection causes the Democrats to lose it completely. Nothing stands untarnished; with every rise comes a fall, and as it was with Breaking Bad, the flaws and mystery of the inevitable collapse are what keep us glued to our seats.

King, Johnson’s parallel, is conflicted in his adultery. And LBJ? He’s our hero. We root for him, feel sorry for him, cheer him on in his crusade, and yet he is as every bit as manipulative as the Heisenberg many of us have also egged on in fascination. Our only moral consolation would have been that it was all for a selfless good — equal rights, and yet…

At the end of the play, and in the wake of the Pyrrhic victory that is his reelection, Johnson’s answer to how he’s doing is to roar, “Hell, I’m great! I’m president!” It’s a jarring exclamation in light of the many compromises and sacrifices, and rings out as a last, resounding question of his true motives.

Walter White’s answer was “I did it for myself.” Schenkkan leaves it for us to decide.