Robert Schenkkan’s Best Play Tony-winner All The Way arrives at South Coast Repertory in what is sure to be one of the coming year’s finest productions, a locally-cast, locally-directed, locally-designed gem that sets the record straight on LBJ, our nation’s 36th President, brought to explosive, warts-and-all life by Hugo Armstrong in one of the year’s great star turns.
In point of fact, this “accidental President” considered it his mission to see a comprehensive Civil Rights Act become the law of the land.
All he needed to do achieve that was coax, entreat, and/or threaten warring Congressional factions to offer their support, and that meant not only those in his own divided party but an almost equally fragmented coalition of Civil Rights leaders, chief among them the Reverend Martin Luther King.
Schenkkan’s political thriller takes us from Johnson’s November 22, 1963 swearing in as President to his landslide reelection slightly less than eleven months later, and though it takes nearly three hours to get from point A to point B, you’ll be spending all three of them on the edge of your seat, no matter how well known the outcome.
Under Marc Masterson’s razor-sharp direction, a cast of eighteen of L.A.’s finest actors bring to life over five dozen characters, a veritable Who’s Who of 1960s politics, including Larry Bates’ Martin Luther King, JD Cullum’s Senator Hubert Humphrey, Robert Curtis Brown’s FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Nike Doukas’ First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, Bo Foxworth’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Christian Henley’s SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, Hal Landon Jr.’s Senators Strom Thurmond and Everett Dirksen, Tracey A. Leigh’s Coretta Scott King, Jeff Marlowe’s Governor George Wallace, Rosney Mauger’s Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and many, many more.
The conservative South’s entrenched opposition to social progress. Equality-mandating legislation gutted by religion-based exemptions. A Republican Presidential candidate vilified as the worst ever. And above all, a politician abundantly aware that when fighting for what’s right, the ends may indeed justify the means.
Those alive in ’63 and ’64 will relish the sparks of recognition All The Way ignites. Those whose only familiarity with the era comes from high school textbooks will see history come alive (and find themselves scurrying to google the names and events that propel its plot).
And absolutely everyone who sees All The Way at South Coast Rep will be raving about Armstrong’s LBJ, towering above the rest both literally and figuratively and as multilayered as performances get.
The superb Bates (reprising MLK from Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop) and the equally memorable Cullum are the only two other cast members playing a single role.
Everyone else wears multiple hats (or wigs), and that includes the crème-de-la-crème ensemble’s Matthew Arkin, Jordan Bellow, Gregg Daniel, Lynn Gallagher, William Francis McGuire, Larry John Meyers, and Darin Singleton.
To single out some over others seems hardly fair, but Brown’s power-mad J. Edgar, Landon’s vividly distinct pair of LBJ-opposing Senators, Leigh’s devastating turn as a brutalized Fannie Lou Hamer, Marlow’s reptilian George Wallace, McGuire’s folksy old Howard “Judge” Smith, and Singleton’s quiet dignity as Walter Jenkins deserve special nods.
Not surprisingly, All The Way looks sensational on scenic designer Ralph Funicello’s ionic-pillared, two-level set, to which Shawn Sagady adds authenticity every step of the way with historical photos and newsreel footage, his Broadway projection design recreated here by Kristin Ellert.
Brand new for SCR are Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting, and Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts’ sound design and original music, all of which give Broadway a run for its bigger bucks.
Tracy Walters is dialect coach. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Kathryn Davies is stage manager. Joshua Marchesi is production manager.
Overused as the phrase “History comes to life” may be, rarely has it proven more apt than in All The Way. Given the unlikelihood of an L.A. production anytime soon, do not miss the chance to be held spellbound at South Coast Rep. Schenkkan’s Tony winner may be playing All The Way down in Costa Mesa, but it is more than worth the drive.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
September 13, 2016
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR