Rob Reviews "The Great Society"
The story of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency (both accidental and mandated by the people) is nothing short of fascinating. From his tough as nails approach that bordered on bullying to his enemies to his manipulation of those who would oppose his plans in the public eye, he was seen at the time as something… less than presidential to many. In “All the Way,” the days leading up to the 1964 election have been chronicled both on screen through HBO starring Brian Cranston in the role and on the stage. Here in Dallas, the Wyly Theatre Center featured the stage play a couple of years ago with Brandon Potter bringing him to life. Since it stopped as “Happy Days Are Here Again” plays at the election, there is still a chunk of the story left to tell as LBJ dealt with his continued relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as members of his own party that did not agree with his policies and even the escalating situation in Vietnam. So, playwright Robert Schenkkan drafted the follow-up in “The Great Society” to tell what has been known as “the rest of the story”.
Potter returns to the role that wowed me before onto the exact same stage set used for “All the Way,” and he continues not to disappoint. He envelops LBJ in a way that even a craftsman on the level of Cranston does not, with a level of intensity and conniving that even the late President himself would give his stamp of approval to. Shawn Hamilton’s King is the perfect complement to Potter, portraying the Civil Rights leader’s strengths and weaknesses all with honor and respect. Dean Nolen’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey gives a small glimpse into both the man and his struggles, and I would have like to have seen more from him, even though it is Johnson’s story. And having seen “The Post” recently, Chris Hutchison’s portrayal of Robert McNamara elevates both his and Bruce Greenwood’s versions of the man to help me connect the dots even more.
I cannot say that I liked “The Great Society” more than I liked “All the Way”. They are both very good productions, but I think the first installment of the two was stronger from a storytelling standpoint. The second act of “The Great Society” weighs itself down some in comparison, but there is also a lot of story to tell as racial tensions challenged by King in the North strain LBJ’s relationships with his party members from both sides of the issue as well as the quickly worsening situation in Southeast Asia (chronicled brilliantly by the numbers being projected on the pillars on the back of the stage as the war effort increased). The themes of repeating history if no lessons are learned from it echo just as relevant now as they did back then, which makes this even more powerful (especially with a closing scene and image that are nothing short of chilling). If you are in the Dallas/Fort Worth area during its run through April 1st, missing this would be selling yourself short of a prime example of the strength of North Texas’ theatre scene.