January 1965: U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson is on top of the world. He’s scored a landslide electoral victory over Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. His approval ratings are sky-high. He’s pushing sweeping legislation to banish poverty and racial discrimination.
March 1968: A violently divided, war-weary nation turns against Johnson. Battered and depressed, he bows out of seeking a second term, and in January of 1969 returns to his native Texas in despair.
What ensues between these dates is the meaty, complex subject of “The Great Society,” part two of Seattle writer Robert Schenkkan’s powerful LBJ saga, after the Tony Award-winning “All the Way.”
Both works are at Seattle Repertory Theatre in a coproduction with Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and breaking box-office records. That bespeaks the play’s impact and our thirst to understand how America’s past shaped its present.
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“All the Way” charts LBJ’s triumphant yearlong “accidental presidency,” after the catastrophic 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Schenkkan widens his scope with “Great Society,” chronicling a confluence of explosive events, political crosscurrents and abuses of power that led to Johnson’s thundering fall.
Colorful and crafty, visionary and misguided, LBJ (in a galvanic portrayal by Jack Willis) is the eye of this epochal storm. But others come to the fore, too, including two other casualties of the era: embattled civil- rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a coolly heroic Kenajuan Bentley), and Johnson’s mercurial political rival, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (Danforth Comins).
The script squanders some steam in the more didactic and expository first act of three. And shouty political bickering is at a surplus.
But Schenkkan’s propulsive intertwining of historical cause and effect is masterly and enhanced by director Bill Rauch’s wise use of such devices as crowd scenes, tableaus, split focus and striking archival screen images composed by Shawn Sagady.
Taking up where “All the Way” left off, one narrative is the continuing struggle for racial equality, which LBJ championed. An account of the famed protest march in Selma, Ala., with backstage maneuvering and leery compromises among LBJ, MLK and demagogic Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Jonathan Haugen), is dynamically realized.
So is King’s lesser-known, eye-opening campaign against urban Northern poverty. It begins in the slums of a Chicago ruled by boss Mayor Richard J. Daley (effective Michael Winters), who with other pols diverted federal poverty aid to private slush funds.
In a stunning sequence, a civil-rights march in the white suburb of Skokie, Ill., is greeted by a racist counter-demonstration so virulent, King observes that Mississippi bigots should come to Chicago “to learn how to hate.”
Mapped out is how the fleecing of Johnson’s poverty programs fueled black rage, which ignited riots in major U.S. cities, which sabotaged King’s nonviolent movement and allowed Johnson’s conservative opponents to deem the Great Society project (i.e., Medicare, food stamps, child welfare) a failure.
In an overlapping Vietnam War narrative, LBJ’s pledge to “not be the president who lost Asia” to communism further imperils his domestic agenda. We watch as, step by step, U.S. military intervention in a far-flung civil war siphons funds away from social programs and turns a generation of youth against him.
The war also taps LBJ’s darkly Shakespearean side. As he deceives the country about U.S. involvement in a bloody quagmire, his ruthless political expediency and hubris are his undoing.
Since its OSF debut last July, “Great Society” has changed for the better. Affecting new scenes make more palpable LBJ’s mounting anguish over Vietnam. There’s also intriguing backstory on Richard Nixon’s (Haugen) rise to the presidency. (His downfall is another story.)
Implicit parallels are drawn between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the polarity in Congress then and now, the state of civil rights in the ‘60s and today. And it’s hard not to leave the theater asking, what progress have we really made?
Whether or not you agree with Schenkkan’s somber view, you have to admire his breadth of research and agility of storytelling. And the yeomen efforts of Willis and the entire company — actors like Terri McMahon, glowing in the undernourished role of LBJ’s wife Lady Bird.
Few recent American dramas bite off as much as Schenkkan’s LBJ plays do, or make you think as hard. And few are as enlightening, and disturbing.