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REVIEW: Gripping All the Way (History Theatre)

A photo composite placing Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and President Lyndon B. Johnson in a cabinet meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room. Photos by Yoichi Okamoto.

The History Theatre’s production of All the Way is a rare thing: a gripping political drama about legislation. Playwright Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning play is an engrossing drama about the legislative battle to pass the modern day Civil Rights Act in a Congress that was divided not only on by party, but also by cultural beliefs concerning values including race (sound familiar?). Director Ron Peluso succeeds in grabbing the audience at the start and never letting go throughout the nearly three-hour production.

LBJ (Pearce Bunting) and George Wallace (Josh Carson) during one of many phone calls. Photo by Rick Spaulding.

U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson succeeded to the presidency when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. His campaign slogan for election to the office in his own right was “All the Way with LBJ”: hence the play’s title. All of the action in the play takes place in the first 13 months of LBJ’s tenure as president and focuses on two distinct milestones: the passage of the current Civil Rights Act, and his landslide election to the presidency in 1964.

Today, it would be impossible to imagine any candidate or incumbent in an election year making such a whole-hearted legislative push for a controversial reform bill. Indeed, LBJ’s predecessor Kennedy frequently preferred to push much of his progressive agenda to a second term (which never materialized due to his death) because of re-election concerns. In contrast, Johnson took the issue head-on, using the wheeling and dealing strategies that marked his earlier tenure as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s.

LBJ is often depicted as both crude and a buffoon in movies such as The Butler and The Right Stuff. The play does not sugarcoat his bullying and crude behavior, and it even provides glimpses of his often patronizing attitude towards African-Americans. It also shows him as a brilliant strategist, though, who earnestly desired to both end discrimination and help the poor. Although LBJ’s long-term legacy was tarnished by his failure to recognize the folly of Vietnam, the reality is that he accomplished more legislatively in the area of civil rights and poverty fighting programs than any other legislator or president in U.S. history.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Shawn Hamilton) and and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Pearce Bunting) argue passionately. Photo by Rick Spaulding.

Pearce Bunting plays an intriguing LBJ. His LBJ is very adroit at picking his allies and using a carrot-and-stick approach to keep his legislative opponents off their game so they cannot block his agenda. Bunting also shows the personal side of LBJ, the self-centered individual who came from a dirt poor background and who always resented what he felt were the slights by others, especially the Kennedys. He shows LBJ as an emotional, sometimes unstable man who feels besieged while he accomplishes his greatest political victories.

Andrew Erskine Wheeler plays Hubert H. Humphrey, the leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and LBJ’s go to person for moving his legislation along. At first glance, Wheeler‘s portrayal of Humphrey seems like a caricature of a weakling – a weakling who repeatedly accepts LBJ’s verbal abuse in the hopes of being made vice-president. Upon closer examination, however, Wheeler’s Humphrey shows a multi-dimensional character who has a deep commitment to civil rights and endures LBJ’s abusive conduct because he sees LBJ’s presidency as the nation’s best chance of enacting meaningful civil rights legislation. Peter Thomson as LBJ’s mentor Senator Richard Russell brings out an important personal bond between Russell and LBJ, despite LBJ’s outmaneuvering him on the civil rights bill.

Although the other characters largely come off as caricatures, this portrayal appears deliberate and part of the evocative nature of the play. Notable performances include Josh Carson as George Wallace, Shawn Hamilton as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Joe Nathan Thomas as Roy Wilkins, Derrick Mosley as Stokely Carmichael, and J.C. Cutler as J. Edgar Hoover.

Parallel arguments. In the foreground: Ron Collier and Joe Nathan Thomas. Background: Shawn Hamilton and Pearce Bunting. Photo by Rick Spaulding.

The play’s impressionistic tone can be seen in Rick Polenek’s scene design of an Oval Office with other chairs for the other characters in a circle around the office. Much of the story is effectively told stylized depictions of LBJ’s phone calls: calls start out with both actors on a phone, after which the actors drop their phones and engage directly with each other in the center, before again raising the phones to end the call.

The play captures the turbulent times of the 1960s and the pain of making change. What is most chilling about this play is the fact that the openly racist remarks by the southern senators and governors are not a thing of the past. This rich political drama gives valuable insights to the American psyche and is one of the best dramas of this year.

All the Way plays at the History Theatre in St. Paul, MN through October 29.


Bev Wolfe