Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Right at the start of Robert Schenkkan's mesmerizing Tony Award-winning play 'ALL THE WAY'---now in an outstanding new production playing at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through October 2---actor Hugo Armstrong is introduced in what would become one of the most powerful, fiery acting performances I have witnessed on this very stage. Commanding, and yet remarkably relatable without ever traversing caricature, Armstrong deftly portrays one of American History's most complex leaders, our 36th President, Lyndon B. Johnson (or "LBJ" as he is often referred).
Armstrong's powerhouse portrayal of LBJ is the explosive epicenter of a richly dense, dialogue-heavy play that dramatizes the rocky 11-month period leading up to Johnson's re-election as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. Showy and intimidating, and yet likably folksy and quite needy, Armstrong's Pres. Johnson spends the entirety of the play exacting power and trying to get what he wants (or, rather, get what he feels is the right thing for the country) by various means---at the expense of being liked by his supporters, fellow party members, and the nation's divided citizens---which is, of course, the nature of politics itself, particularly in an all-important election year. From his friendly, Southern drawl to his rage-fueled outbursts, Armstrong's riveting portrait of a say-anything, bulldoze-everyone leader definitely keeps this theme top-of-mind, and, man, it is spectacular to watch unfold.
Helmed confidently by SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson, the comfortably-paced play opens right after a tragic event that still makes many shudder to this day: the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. As Kennedy's Vice President, Johnson is immediately sworn into office to assume the role and to jump into its many duties and, to an extent, its executive privileges and headaches. But Johnson's rise to the post, of course, is a constantly nagging reminder for him that he is an "accidental President," a label he feels may be somewhat diluted if he can not only successfully pass the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964 (something his "blue blood" predecessor was working hard to pass himself before his untimely death) but to also get himself rightly voted into the Presidency by the American public, instead of just getting the post by law and circumstance.
He, understandably, wants to leave a lasting legacy---especially if his time in office is cut short prematurely come election day.
With plenty of scheming, closed-door brokered deals, half-hearted promises, and out-right bullying, the very tall Johnson towers over---literally and figuratively---all that come into his circle (well, in this specific case, Ralph Funicello's effectively clever dual-level oval office set marked by a semi-circle of large classical columns holding up an elevated roof/balcony area).
Johnson's imposing height is often put to good use in his daily interactions, particularly with the much-shorter and gentler Sen. Hubert Humphrey (the excellent JD Cullum) and his attentively loyal and often derided wife Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas). Also at his beck-and-call is his trusted longtime top aide Walter Jenkins (Darin Singleton) who at times acts as Johnson's administrative and social secretary, intelligence briefer, and even chief feelings-soother.
As expected, Johnson is saddled with plenty of challenges in his first months in the Oval Office, while at the same time mounting a campaign to remain in the very office he inherited. Chief among the challenges is his push to get the Civil Rights Act passed---a landmark piece of legislation that would outlaw discrimination in regards to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. While Sen. Humphrey (who is repeatedly enticed with a possible VP slot for himself) and his fellow left-leaning liberals in the Democratic Party are more than happy to assist Johnson in ensuring its passage, Johnson's fellow Southern Democrats (the very pro-segregation "Dixiecrats")---including his longtime friend and mentor Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia (Larry John Meyers)---are extremely against the passage of a law that is unpopular (and vehemently opposed) down in the Southern States, where Jim Crow still rules.
Thus, an intriguing tug-of-war ensues. Johnson, still wishing to push forward civil rights legislation, does all he can (including stripping out voting rights specifically from the bill) to appease his fellow Dixiecrats, who, while smoking cigars in their private whites-only meeting rooms, are loudly threatening to pull their support for his re-election if he continues his crusade. The scenes featuring these pro-segregation politicians feel almost shockingly stereotypical (a sobering reminder of the kind of ugliness that permeated such power-hungry government backrooms during these earlier times---and, yes, perhaps still even now, alarmingly, in 2016 politics).
Meanwhile he must also heed the needs and increasingly public demands of leaders of the African-American community. First, there's future Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. (Larry Bates), who, despite the shock of learning that voting rights have been ripped from the Civil Rights bill, seems more willing to converse and compromise for progress---even if it means it's a slower progress than he and the African-American citizenry would like. He is asked not to work against the actions of the President and, with a heavy heart, agrees... if only for the promised progression of the cause. And, on the other end, there's student activist and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley), who organizes the "Freedom Summer" movement, which sends college students into Southern States to help register voters and desegregate institutions.
In the middle of it all---and listening in on everything---is secretive FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown) who has placed tabs on everybody involved.
As tensions, violent clashes, and loud protests increase in the combustive, still segregated South---including a shocking incident that finds three Freedom Summer students (one black, two white) brutally murdered---the President continues to advocate for the bill from one branch to the other, trying to rally votes for its passage right up to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Yet, despite the multitude of orbiting characters that trickle in and out of the narrative throughout its two-act, three-hour (!) running time (each act runs about 90 minutes each), the true nucleus of 'ALL THE WAY' remains the very outspoken President Johnson, a goal-oriented, cantankerous, yet amusingly spunky larger-than-life personality that affects everyone's actions and behaviors throughout the play. Johnson, as vividly portrayed in the play, is a truly fascinating cross between a thoughtful, intelligent strategist and a petulant, needy child that yells and throws over-the-top tantrums at the slightest setback. And like him or not, the play sets out to show a man that was, arguably, to be on the right side of progress. More interestingly, 'ALL THE WAY' also shows a gifted Politician that is savvy enough to know how to work the nuances and complexities of the Great American Political Machine---which buttons to push, which levers need tending, and if there are any work-arounds available if things don't go as originally planned (Spoiler alert, haha... he wins re-election... and, yes, passes the Voting Rights Act the following year as promised).
On the whole, South Coast Rep's 'ALL THE WAY' is absorbing, intense, and, yes, fun to watch, particularly for fans of the ins-and-outs of the political process. I do have one minor gripe, however. While much of the play's expansive exposition and bountiful dialogue can be appreciated for specificity, context, and clarity, the play's heft could have used some finer trimming, if only to reduce the running time a bit. Otherwise, though, 'ALL THE WAY' only occasionally feels overlong, and much less so when we see Armstrong act the heck out of his role. He manages to even make a phone call seem more riveting than they normally are in other plays. It's just the kind of meaty role that demands an equally passionate actor to truly bring it to life and, so, whenever he appears, the play almost instantly gets its mojo back, if only to see what outlandish things he does (and says) next.
While Armstrong's presence in SCR's new mounting may draw comparisons to the strong work displayed by Bryan Cranston (who won the Tony for the role on Broadway and has also been nominated for an Emmy for the HBO TV-movie adaptation), I genuinely feel this regional production's lead actor gives a definite must-see performance that needs to be experienced in the same breathing space.
Fortunately for this production of 'ALL THE WAY,' Armstrong's brilliant performance is also accentuated by a plethora of truly incredible performances all around from its entire ensemble, many of whom portray multiple characters that are quite distinctive from one another from accent to demeanor (the projected super-titles that accompany each newly-introduced character, of course, helps tremendously---and there are many in this play). Aside from the excellent work by Cullum, Bates, Doukas, Singleton, Meyers, and Brown, also worth noting is Tracey A. Leigh, whose moving portrayals of both Martin's wife Coretta Scott King and, later, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who gives tearful testimony at the Democratic National Convention. Jordan Bellow, Gregg Daniel, Jeff Marlow, Hal Landon Jr., William Francis McGuire, Rosney Mauger, Matthew Arkin, Bo Foxworth, and Lynn Gallagher round out the superb cast.
Besides the great work of Armstrong and the ensemble, SCR's production also boasts excellent retro fashions from Holly Poe Durbin, artfully astute lighting by Jaymi Lee Smith, skillfully inventive sound design by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts, and essential projection designs recreated by Kristin Ellert that adds much-appreciated texture and contextual mood to the ample storytelling. Kevin Haney also deserves kudos for his design of Armstrong's LBJ special effects makeup, which brings the actor visually closer to his real-life counterpart.
'ALL THE WAY' is by far one of this Tony Award-winning regional theater's strongest, most engrossing plays to ever open a season and I cannot highly recommend it enough. It is certainly a testament to the beauty of living, breathing live theater---and even more so considering its real life source material. This is a great piece of theatre... much like the world of political maneuvering itself.
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Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
Robert Schenkkan's ALL THE WAY continues performances at South Coast Repertory through October 2, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.