Sunday, December 14, 2014

Play: The Center Cannot Hold

The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan, Directed by Bill Rauch, through 4 January, 2015, Seattle Rep.

When last we looked in on LBJ, he had won re-election, transforming himself from an accidental president to a man with a mandate for change. This is what happened next and how it all went to hell.

We are back, but with a difference. The men in charge of their own destiny are suddenly being driven by undesired circumstances. LBJ (Jack Willis, again throwing off good-old-boy homilies with hard-nosed arm-twisting) wants to push his Great Society, while news from Viet Nam keeps interrupting his narrative. Martin Luther King (channeled by Kenajuan Bentley), his racial counterpoint, loses control of the Movement to more radical elements. Meanwhile, RFK (Danforth Comins) hangs out like a shark at the corner drug store, waiting to make his move, and while George Wallace becomes less relevant, Dick Nixon returns from the political dead, looking for weakness (both played only slightly more unctuously than in life by Jonathan Haugen).

And in the first act, you get LBJ and MLK at their best. LBJ out-maneuvers both Wallace and the AMA, while MLK walks the perilous line in Selma between dealing with his own supporters and wresting potential concessions from the White House. But as the play progresses, things get worse. For MLK, he loses the thread when he leaves his southern powerbase, first in LA during the Watts riots and then in Chicago in a power play with Hizzoner, Richard M. Daley. For LBJ, the was is a canker at the heart of his administration, where making the least-bad decision only ups the stakes and turns allies against him. The two men, potential allies, come apart as King speaks out against Viet Nam and LBJ feels betrayal from all sides.

The stage, like the country, comes apart. The rising benches of the stage, populated by the other actors when not part of the performance, is shattered in jagged, smoking rubblet littered with protest signs. As LBJ gives approval to Hoover for illegal surveillance of the antiwar movement, tape recorders sprout. The later hallmarks of the Nixon administration are all in place by the end of the play - the repression, the internal spying, the out of control war. All it needed was Nixon to step into the role, riding a tide of rebellion against Johnson's attempt to transform the country to something better. The stage that Nixon takes command of is trashed, and the final image is of the new president, flashing victory signs as LBJ moves into retirement.

This is a history, one of many centered on the era. And by >a< history, I mean that there is only so much that can be placed in a single play, even one of three hours. Wallace vanishes from the play's narrative as Haugen transforms into Nixon, his spiritual successor, but Wallace did not go gently into that good night, but rather taking five states of the Deep South on his own in the '68 election, and splitting the Democratic party for Nixon's "southern strategy".Further, both MLK and RFK make their exits with their last words, in flashback. After going into great detail about the '64 campaign in All the Way, the '68 campaign fizzles out as a major contention point as soon as LBJ hands it over to an overmatched Humphrey.

And by the same token, to glibly quote  Twain, history doesn't repeat, but it sure does rhyme, and we can see echoes of Selma in Ferguson, of Viet Nam in Iraq, and in budgetary maneuvering to defund the president's leadership in the War on Poverty and the ACA. The path of progress is never clear nor unchallenged, and only with the longest of views does it seem inevitable.

The play itself is a tragedy, of a man who gets everything he wants and discovers that it is not enough to effect the change he wants. It is tough going in places, particularly where the ugly face of racism shows in Alabama, California, and Illinois. It is easier to take if you understand the first chapter, and the Rep is running both plays, sometimes on the same say, so you can "Broadway" you experience by doing All The Way in the afternoon, and The Great Society in the evening. And it is recommended - these a risking plays in the modern theatrical world - large casts, long running times, big issues. But they are both worth seeing.

More later,