“‘Politics is war by other means.’ Bullshit. Politics is war. Period.”
Lyndon Baines Johnson (Jack Willis) pointedly delivers this salvo to open the second act of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of All the Way. By this point LBJ has already won his battle, passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the larger war might be lost, as the political contortions required to make the bill a reality took a toll not only on LBJ, but the core of the Democratic Party. The resulting drama adds a taut tension, whether real or merely internally perceived, to the Texan’s quest to go from “accidental president” after John F. Kennedy’s assassination to elected Commander in Chief in 1964.
Seattleite Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning script maximizes the potential of the political drama. It humanizes (flaws and all) a president with a distant public person. It creates gripping drama out of events where the outcome is historical record. It moves with a brisk pace thanks to the razor sharp dialogue. And, most surprisingly, features a genuinely strong sense of comedy to add life to the often dry world of behind-the-scenes political dealing.
Jack Willis plays LBJ with an undeniably magnetic conviction. The feat is all the more impressive because he’s essentially a different character in each act. The first LBJ—the one consumed by passing the Civil Rights Act—is a cunning political dealmaker. Willis captures both the man’s unrelenting doggedness and sweet-talking charm. The latter attribute comes out through his blunt colloquial humor. The multitude of old Southern jokes and yarns help the audience connect to LBJ on a personal level. It balances the man.
Really, everything about Schenkkan's sketch of LBJ centers on balance. He must know exactly when to compromise and when to pull out every trick at his disposal to push the legislation further along the path. Just as importantly, he’s tasked with juggling the Washington personalities: the nebbish niceness of his Civil Right right-hand man (and future Vice President) Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette), the suspicious and conspiratorial F.B.K. director J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Elmore), and Hoover’s main target Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley).
But the president's real internal turmoil mounts in the second act as he campaigns to keep his job in the 1964 election. Willis makes LBJ’s nerves palpable. He finally has the power he’s wanted, but it makes him increasingly insular and paranoid as political momentum trends against him (specifically, when the Democrats lose their foothold in the South). At points, his mental state gets so fragile that he basically reverts to the childhood instincts throwing a hissy fit in front of his wife, Lady Bird (played with warm Southern poise by Terri McMahon). Even with executive power, reaching one’s ultimate goal and having it play out nothing like it did in daydreams can be a foundation shaking realization.
Even victory seems to leave LBJ hollow. That’s probably because it doesn’t seem like a clean victory. Because it isn’t. While the country has moved forward since LBJ’s presidency, it’s disturbingly easy for Schenkkan to draw parallels between the events in the play and modern times. At times, it doesn't seem like we've made much progress in areas like dirty party politics and systematic racism.
When is a win not a win? When it’s setting you up for the big fall.
All the Way’s sequel, The Great Society, begins its run at Seattle Rep on December 5.
All the Way
Thru Jan 4, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $17–$122