The Great Society, by Robert Schenkkan
Playing at the Seattle Repertory Theater until Jan. 4, 2015.
Lyndon B. Johnson was and is a controversial president in American history. He tried valiantly to advance civil rights for all and to make opportunities available for everyone regardless of race, creed, or class; but on the other hand, he also was mired in the quagmire known as the Vietnam War, and eventually his policies at home fell apart. This play, The Great Society, tells the story of Johnson’s presidency from his re-election in 1964 to his downfall and the inauguration of Richard Nixon in 1969.
The play starts off full of hope: everyone is chanting “All the way with LBJ!” and there is an air of optimism in everyone onstage. Here we see the entrance of the president himself, portrayed by Jack Willis. The casting of Willis was a great choice by the Repertory Theater because he acts out many of the president’s mannerisms flawlessly: he can be big and intimidating with his version of the infamous Johnson Treatment, yet he can also show remorse and regret later on. If there is one thing I could critique about the acting, it would be that the actors on the receiving end of the Johnson Treatment should look a little more terrified. In historical photographs of the infamous “treatment”, the person on the receiving end smiles nervously, and looks genuinely terrified that the president will give him a Texas-style smackdown should he not get his way, and in the play… it seems that there wasn’t enough of the terror in the portrayal of the “Treatment”. Other than that, the portrayal of Johnson was quite superb.
Though there is optimism at the beginning, storm clouds start to emerge with the growing call for civil rights, pressuring the president to act. It is here that we see the entrance of Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed by Kenajuan Bentley. Throughout the rest of the play, King tries to appeal for calm while others around him want more direct, more forceful action. He stands as a beacon of patience and calm in a turbulent sea of change and resistance to it. King is constantly at odds with Stokely Carmichael, a radical Black Power leader portrayed by Wayne Carr, but the most powerful scenes come from the confrontation and subsequent bloodshed of African Americans and the oppressive white police force. These scenes are gripping and moving, some of them are in slow motion to show in detail the brutality of the police in the South and other parts of America during this era. The dialogue is dramatic and the action is raw, it feels like you have a ringside seat to some of the most important moments during the civil rights movement. Later on during the play, the set starts to degenerate. In the first act, the set is pristine and new, like it was built yesterday; but as time goes on, the set starts to burn away, it starts to crack, and parts of it are scattered about. This was a superb touch to the play: it is an accurate representation of America during this time: hopeful and brimming with optimism at first, but degenerating into riots and turmoil later on..
Overall, I would give this play 5 out of 5 stars because of how it portrays a controversial president with a balanced perspective, its powerful scenes, and how it takes a good hard look at a turbulent part of American history.