Friday, September 19, 2014

OSF: The Great Society

There are two sides to every story, and this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival we're witnessing the dark side of the tale of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Two years ago OSF produced Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, the triumphant story of LBJ's first year in office and his principled stand and political prowess that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The play had its world premier in Ashland before making it all the way to Broadway and a Tony Award for best play.

This year, OSF presents the second part of Schenkkan's narrative, The Great Society, which covers the four years after LBJ's re-election, exposes Johnson's tragic flaws and weaknesses, and gives us front row seats as the expense and the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam lead to the dismantling of the Great Society programs that the president championed, and to his decision not to seek another term.

Kenajuan Bentley, left, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and
Jack Willis as President Lyndon Johnson, in the Oregon
Shakespeare Festival production of Robert Schenkkan's
The Great Society. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
Directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, The Great Society brings back many of the cast members from All the Way, including Jack Willis as LBJ, Kenajuan Bentley as Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Elmore as J. Edgar Hoover, and Jonathan Haugen as Alabama Governor George Wallace. This time Haugen also plays Richard Nixon.

It's a fantastic cast all the way through, but Willis's performance is a tour de force. He spends most of the three-plus hours of the play onstage, and marvelously captures the many moods of Johnson, from power broker to charmer to vulgarian; from champion steer to beaten horse. Sometimes all at once.

The set, designed by Christopher Acebo, was simple yet marvelous, several rows of desks and chairs resembling the senate chamber. Often characters would be lurking in the seats in the background as they were considered by or awaiting a call from the president. In particular, Bentley as King and Danforth Comins as Sen. Robert Kennedy spent a lot of time in the seats, a nod to the fact that they played such pivotal roles in the events of the day even when not front and center. In act three parts of the set are dismantled, upended, and smoking, representing that both the war and the Johnson administration are in ruins.

The production also made constant use of projections, designed by Shawn Sagady. Video and still images of newspaper headlines and photographs; of key scenes such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday conflict during the march from Selma to Montgomery; and of frequent updates of the ever-mounting toll of casualties from the war were projected on the large, back wall of the set. As Johnson watched a television newscast of Walter Cronkite declaring his conclusion that the war was bad policy, a video clip of the report was projected on the wall. We don't often like projections, which can be a distraction, but in this case they added to the effective storytelling.

It's a thought-provoking play. The Pettus Bridge is now a historical landmark and the President of the United States is an African American, suggesting that we have come a long way. On the other hand, the depiction of the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson can't help but evoke more recent images of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, suggesting that we have a great many miles yet to go in our march toward becoming a great society.

The Great Society is part of OSF's American Revolutions U.S. history cycle, and was commissioned and co-produced by the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It plays through November 1 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland. Both All the Way and The Great Society will then play in repertory at Seattle Rep from November 14–January 4, with most of the OSF cast. There are a half-dozen weekend dates during the run on which you'll be able to see both plays back-to-back. We recommend it wholeheartedly.

1 comment:

Pat said...

As mentioned we are seeing this in mid-October, and as you said, I think we will like it. Good review! P