Monday, November 24, 2014

Play: LBJ Rising, Redux

All The Way, Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch, Seattle Rep, through Jan 4.

Hey, wait a minute, didn't you already review this play? Yes I did, when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Here it is, here, and just about everything I said then applies now. 

Here's the short version, LBJ conducts a master class on arm-twisting, deal-making, cajoling and berating, tracking the period from his ascendance as an "accidental president" to his triumphant re-election as Landslide Lyndon. Jack Willis burns up the stage as LBJ, a critical mass of both personal power and insecurity. The late Mike Nichols stated that every scene is a seduction, a fight, or a negotiation - with Willis' LBJ every scene is all three at the same time. Peter Frechette is a positively twitchy Humphrey, Jonathan Haugen is an explosive Wallace, and Kenajuan Bentley is a calm MLK whose own challenges threaten to overwhelm him. You can watch Bentley's face in the wake of Mississippi Burning losing control of his narrative, and his political wrangling mirrors LBJ's own.

So what has changed from the OSF version? Much and little. The cast is mostly intact from OSF, though in the more intimate housing of the Bagley Wright, their performances seem more broader and  animated than earlier. Yeah, I just said the Bagley Wright is intimate, and it is, compared to the pitlike Bowmer in Ashland. In the Bowmer, we have an outhrust stage into a large amphitheater, giving a top-down view, while the B-W pitches up to the actors on stage. There feels like their are fewer actors on the stage here than in Oregon, but they are more packed together, and the setting - chairs on risers occupied by actors who are not occupying center stage, is more looming  from the seats in Seattle. 

The play itself is there as well, all the beats in place, but some of the story has evolved since I first saw it. A tale of young LBJ in his first campaign is gone, and the play culminates with a comparison between MLK's Nobel Prize and LBJ calling out his own party for its racist politics. And yes, there feels like more mention of Progressive Republicans fighting for equality in this presentation as well, creating both a clarity of division and the vibe that the world has changed between then and now. So it is an evolving thing as well, and gets stronger in it evolution.

The other noticeable thing was the house was packed, even unto the balcony, which was not always the case for other plays. Usually this is the time of year when you do something safe - a musical or another version of Inspecting Carol, but taking a large, sprawling poltical play like All The Way with its huge cast is a risk, and one that looks like it pays off. I recommend not only this play, but its sequel, which will also hit the boards at the Rep next month, The Great Society. I've had a chance to read the play in advance (as part of a class) and have to say, it just gets better.

More later,