All the Way previewed in Cambridge at the Loeb Drama Center last night and I was there! Written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Harvard alum Bill Rauch, this performance starred Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s 1963 and following the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr LBJ becomes an “accidental President”. From the outset he champions JFKs civil rights bill, primarily as a as a political maneuver to increase his chances of winning the 1964 election. However, as LBJ later explains to Dr Martin Luther King, a “war on poverty” is his primary goal which will be beneficial to people of all races. We learn how LBJ’s desire to help the poor stemmed from his own childhood experiences after his family was plunged into poverty.
The primary focus of the play is the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but LBJ the man is also given center stage. As history notes, the bill was met with significant resistance and LBJ encounters this in his own back yard from his inner circle of Southern democrats. We the audience see the decision making process behind the various iterations of the bill, and the political maneuvering that LBJ used to counter attempts by Republicans and Southern democrats to block the bill. Throughout the play LBJ’s huge personality and rough charisma is at the fore, and this goes a long way to keeping the audience engaged in a political play that runs over three hours. Prior A.R.T performances such as last year’s The Glass Menagerie have moved to Broadway, it will be interesting to see if cuts are made to the length of the play if All the Way follows them.
Although the play is quite long it is never boring. Momentum builds as we move towards the 1964 US election. The murder of the three Mississippi Civil Rights workers Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner and the riots that followed are covered. At times actors enter from the audience delivering speeches that made me want to stand and applaud. The stagecraft of the play is excellent. The set easily conjures the benches of the House and Senate and the interior of the Oval Office. Throughout the play characters sit in the benches and appear to overhear the events on the stage. This is a powerful device. especially in a scene where the Southern Democrat Good Ole Boys make disparaging remarks about black Americans while two black cast members sit in silence on either side. How would you modify your speech if you knew that the object of your ire was listening? At other times, those listening in appropriately enough include J Edgar Hoover.
All Cambridge performances of All the Way have sold out, no doubt in part due to the presence of Bryan Cranston in the lead role. Prior to watching the performance I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see past Walter White after binge watching Breaking Bad this spring on the insistence of my fiancee who is an avid fan. My concern was bourne out for about 5 seconds. Bryan Cranston makes the role of LBJ his own and it’s easy to become lost in the play to the exclusion of all else. Bryan Cranston isn’t the only familiar face in the Cambridge cast. This cast includes Michael McKean (Spinal Tap, Best in Show and most recently Family Tree), Dan Butler (The Silence of the Lambs, Quantum Leap, Frasier, Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Dakin Matthews (True Grit, Lincoln) among others.
Overall this is an excellent play. Highly entertaining and thought-provoking. It’ll be weird watching LBJ trying to evade capture by the FBI on Breaking Bad this Sunday evening.
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