A loud, boisterous, strong-willed and profane president with the political skills to make deals and work across the aisles.
Yet, that's what we had 50 years ago, with Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office. And although the decade would be marred by riots, the Vietnam War and conflict at every level, for one brief, shining moment, American government got shit done. The accidental president worked with both sides of Congress his first few years in office, twisting arms and bellowing obscenities in determined pursuit of monumental legislation, much of it inherited from his predecessor. And while some would argue that LBJ's Great Society did more long-term damage to the country than helped it (Welfare State anyone?), no one could argue that the force of his stubborn and strong personality played a pivotal factor in fundamentally altering America.
Johnson's personality, as well as perhaps his signature achievement—persuading Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964—is the backdrop of Robert Schenkkan's sprawling, epic play, All the Way, which kicks off South Coast Repertory's 2016-17 season. How sprawling and epic? Try 18 actors playing some 50 characters with more than 150 costumes and wigs. The play, which won the Tony Award in 2014 and was recently turned into an HBO film starring Bryan Cranston, features iconic characters including Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover, along with a slew of other notables such as Robert McNamara, Stokely Carmichael, George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey.
It's a big show with an enormous canvas, following Johnson's ascendancy in November 1963 to his landslide election victory the next November. But it's all rooted in the complicated psychology of a man who is portrayed as both needy and vulnerable, a major reason why it's much more a play than a history lesson. And though it is steeped in events a half-century old, it's also quite contemporary, according to SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson, who also directs this production.
"The plays deals with the passage of civil-rights legislation and the political circumstances and personalities involved, but I think it also has a lot to say about the political world we live in today," Masterson says. "At a time when our country is in the middle of a presidential election, it gives people, like myself and our cast, a lot to reflect on. Because as [we come] to work and we're listening to or reading the news, we can't help but be caught up in how things have changed and how they're still the same."
An obvious similarity is complicated, often-divisive racial relations. And an obvious difference is the way government worked—and doesn't. "This was an era when the art of compromise was really in practice," Masterson says. "Johnson was a great politician, and one of his skills was that he was able to get people to find a common ground. But currently, we may have lost our ability to compromise. Congress is so frozen by intractable positions that the way legislation gets made seems almost crippled. So it's interesting to see [compromise] in practice. Everyone—from Dr. King to Northern liberals and Southern democrats—lost something critical and were upset about the result, but when you look back, the result had a huge impact on society that, I think, was positive."
All the Way offers a challenge not only with its large cast and scope, but also with the issue of audience familiarity. Even if people didn't live during the era depicted, most have some awareness of several of the characters, which presents a stylistic hurdle. "You need to be as true to the spirit of these people as possible, to be evocative of the historical characters without being slavishly true to them," Masterson says. "And that's part of the stylistic balance of doing this play. It takes very skilled, passionate actors to pull that off."
According to Masterson, cast members studied their characters in depth, whether by watching archival footage or plowing through the four-volume biography of Johnson by Robert Caro that Schenkkan used as a template. "The first thing you want to get right is the accent," Masterson says. "You don't want to do an impersonation, something that skims the surface by capturing a few different mannerisms or patterns of speech. That's what comedians do, and it is evocative of the person you're imitating. But that's not enough in a play. You have to understand the characters' motivations, their psychology. But [the actors] also need to know their characters' personality, their traits, what made them who they were."
As for those who think they need not bother with a staged version after watching the Emmy-nominated film starring Cranston?
"First and fundamentally, this is a piece of theater," Masterson says. "And while it lends itself to making a film, with short episodic scenes that seem cinematic, when you see it onstage, it's a very different experience. So, for those who have seen the movie, [this production is] a great opportunity to experience the power of theater."
All the Way at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 2. $22-$79.