The year is 1964, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson stands at the helm of the most powerful nation in the free world. Although this story could be a dry read pulled from the pages of history textbooks, it’s dramatically brought to life on stage in “All the Way,” nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Play.
In this political drama, written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch, LBJ is shown in his first year as president, from shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in late November 1963, through the presidential election of November 1964. During this time, Johnson faced multiple challenges, including passing groundbreaking Civil Rights legislation and campaigning for re-election. Really, though, for Johnson, those two goals went hand-in-hand. Passing this major piece of legislation, but doing it without alienating Southern voters, was the key to securing a full term, and he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve victory.
Emmy-award winner, but first-time Broadway actor, Bryan Cranston plays the role of LBJ, and his portrayal is what really takes this show to the top of the nominee list. He brings to the role a Texas drawl and a looming presence that makes the president seem like a larger-than-life character who isn’t interested in letting anything stand in the way of his goals. And yet, despite the power and ambition that Cranston clearly imbues Johnson with, he also portrays him as, quite simply, human. Cranston’s portrayal is commendable, and it earned him his own Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play.
Schenkkan has packed this script with a full slate of events from 1964. Myriad details have been accused of bogging the action down, but for those who haven’t studied this year of American history in depth, “All the Way” truly does its best to show, with passion and fervor, the real-life drama that surrounded the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are smear campaigns, national conventions, unfortunate murders and no shortage of political deals. In this three-hour show, history and politics are anything but boring.
Credit for the stage design goes to Christopher Acebo, Associate Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where “All the Way” made its stage debut with Jack Willis playing the role of Johnson. The show has one set, in the center of which the main drama takes place. In a semi-circle around the center are raised boxes from which the other characters keep their eyes on Johnson and his maneuvering. Projections are creatively used to enhance the set and move the action from one location to another.
Other notable names in this play include Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey, John McMartin as Richard Russell and Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr. Betsy Aidem makes an appearance as Lady Bird Johnson, and Michael McKean fills the role of J. Edgar Hoover.
“All the Way” is currently running in a limited engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre. The show opened March 6th and will close June 29th. A sequel, “The Great Society,” about the following years of Johnson’s presidency, will premiere at the 2014 Oregon Shakespeare Festival with Jack Willis in the lead role.
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Meghan Ross is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.