Robert Schenkkan's political behemoth All the Way is more freighter than sleek ocean liner. This sprawling tanker can travel only one way – forward – with no ability to maneuver and turn around, or even glide effortlessly. Everything is gray and ash, utilitarian, no curves. Load on the facts, scour political tell-alls for juicy dialogue and show us waxworks.
Upon the assassination of JFK, vice-president Lyndon Baines Johnson assumes the mantle as “the accidental president,” as he calls it. Gruff and bluff, the epitome of the old-time political mastermind, he desires to continue Kennedy's legacy in civil rights, Medicaid and voting rights. This good ol' boy from Texas passionately believes in equal rights. “It's the right thing to do,” he declares. But he's thwarted by two disparate sides: his Southern allies, whom he has need of for re-election, and the vocal, provocative black politicians, who view compromise as anathema. The play swats these positions back and forth as Johnson uses all his wiles to keep his agenda on track.
Author Schenkkan lays it out like a Powerpoint presentation, but there's not much drama in the underhanded political wrangling he revels in. The cast of characters is so immense, I dare you to tell the difference between Robert Byrd, Rep. Howard Smith, Mike Mansfield, Walter Reuther, James Eastland, Richard Russell, William Moore McCulloch. Some of the Southern politicos have more of an atrocious accent than the rest, but the swirl of Washington bigwigs is still swirl. With her flipped hair, Lady Byrd's easier to identify; so is Martin Luther King in Shawn Hamilton's magnificent performance. Stokely Carmichael at least has a vestige of an afro. They come and go – civil rights icons, secret service agents, a barber, Katharine Graham, influential editor of The Washington Post, J. Edgar Hoover, constantly eavesdropping – mostly in short vignettes, supposedly ginning up the suspense of which Schenkkan supplies very little. The outcome is not in doubt if you know your history. So what are we left with? Political shenanigans of the lowest order, double and triple dealings, blackmail, compromise, back-stabbing, sweet talkin', and glad-handing. Yes, the stuff of politics since Tutankhamun.
But must this all be so dull? All the Way is civics lesson with halo, a Ken Burns documentary without the talking heads: earnest, dry, educational, good for you like spinach.
Those massive Corinthian columns with their froufrou capitals planted upstage serve only as screens on which are projected dry dates and ominous countdown messages: “seven months until election,” “three months until election...” Like telex, the letters click into place, accompanied by loud metal thwangs and blinding light pulses. It's all theatrical ’70s gothic, a terrible playmaking tool that gives import without meaning.
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In this rushing who's who of 1964 U.S. politics, it makes no difference if you admire Johnson for his Great Society or despise him for his disastrous Vietnam policy – the Vietnam years are covered by Schenkkan in his sequel, The Great Society (2014) – you are perfectly aware that you don't want to be on his bad side. Stepping in for James Black, who had to withdraw because of illness, Brandon Potter has emotional heft to compensate for his lack of physical girth. Johnson was a big man, outsize as it were, rumpled and ferocious. You did what he said, or suffered the ignominy. Schenkkan and Potter give him as much heart as necessary to keep the portrait from hagiography. Johnson always pulls out a little homily to illustrate the moment, usually a blue one, and you do end up admiring his tenacity and political acumen. But getting underneath his skin? That's not here.
Of all the personalities crowding the stage, David Rainey's Ralph Abernathy stands out for his fortitude and integrity; and in the small role of Lady Byrd, Leah Spillman brings warm sympathy and years of heartbreak to long-suffering First Lady. The rest go by in a blur, except for those wigs that smack us in the face. Never have I seen a professional company try to get away with such horsehair. My, they are bad. No one seems to be the right age, either, too young by far, too unwrinkled, too much powder in the bad hair.
Schenkkan's sincere and solemn play picked up a Tony Award in 2014 for Best Play. It wasn't the most distinguished year: another Harvey Fierstein, another Terrence McNally, another John Patrick Shanley, so among the slim pickings, this “think piece” must have seemed like Shakespeare. Hardly!
All the Way continues through February 21 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$125.