All the Way
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
South Coast Repertory
Through October 2
Theatre based on the recreation of history can be frustrating. On the one hand, one never knows how much the facts have been altered to make it properly dramatic and entertaining, while on the other, there are often so many characters that one never really gets to know any of them. That said, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way manages to avoid most of these pitfalls by essentially focusing on one character’s take on and place in history: Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s a terrific role for the right actor, and Hugo Armstrong is ferociously good as LBJ in one of the best performances of this year.
As the play begins, JFK has just been assassinated, and “accidental president” Johnson (Armstrong) feels the need to scramble. He’s got eleven months to try to get a civil rights bill passed before a primary and an election could change everything. To this end he is aided by Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates) and opposed by a coalition of Southern politicians led by his ex-mentor, Richard Russell (Larry John Meyers). But King is having trouble getting his cohorts behind helping the president, and George Wallace (Jeff Marlow) is running against Johnson in a manner not unlike Donald Trump. Johnson wheels and deals furiously, but will it be enough?
Armstrong achieves a stunning transformation as Johnson (aided enormously by Kevin Haney’s makeup design); he not only looks and sounds like the man but also inhabits the character in a deep way. He’s captured LBJ’s charm and slyness, and also his vicious need to win. It’s a leonine performance, and Armstrong is impressive in full roar, but it’s the moments where he’s frustrated or despairing that stick with you, the instances where you realize the president is still just a man.
Bates effectively plays King as a tired and angry fellow about at the end of his tether — beset from those within his party and without, and forced to trust Johnson for lack of better options. With only a little stage time, Meyers makes a lot of impact as Russell, the political manipulator being ousted by LBJ. As Wallace, Marlow exudes oily charisma, and JD Cullum is quietly memorable as the constantly disrespected but dignified Hubert Humphrey.
Director Marc Masterson’s staging is fleet and visually arresting, from the staging of a boisterous rally in the aisles of the theater to a moment where the start of the Vietnam conflict is paired with the disinterment of the body of a Freedom Summer volunteer. While I don’t profess to know the accuracy of Schenkkan’s retelling of history, his play works as drama, displaying how incredibly difficult it is to get anything of worth done or, as he writes: “Nothing comes free, especially not good.” His complicated delineation of Johnson’s character feels authentic, particularly when reinforced by lines such as: “All my life as a Southerner I’ve had to bite my tongue on this issue (racial equality) ‘til my mouth was fulla blood.” Ralph Funicello’s bi-level set is both handsome and admirably adaptable, and is bolstered consistently by Shawn Sagady & Kristin Ellert’s projection design.
All the Way is a long but fascinating play, and it’s given a superb production by SCR, so it’s worth a trip down to Costa Mesa for that alone. However, the amazing performance by Hugo Armstrong makes it a must-see. Go.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Wed. 7:30 p.m., Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; through Oct. 2. www.scr.org. Running time: 3 hours.