Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society does not merely bring history alive. The play grabs the audience around the throat and flings them onto a hair-raising three-hour thrill ride. The play covers Johnson’s one term presidency and proves to be even more powerful than its companion piece, All The Way. Jack Willis tackles the Herculean role of LBJ and commands the evening from the opening curtain. It may be one of the most spell binding performances this city has ever seen.
The play opens as LBJ comes down stage center to recount an old Texas story of how a rodeo bull rider has such a harrowing job…hanging on for dear life to remain on a bucking, twisting beast for mere seconds before being thrown to the ground; but oh the ecstatic joy of the ride! The audience might as well buckle up then and there; we’re joining this mercurial president for the trip of his life.
Act I crackles with a joyful energy as Johnson maneuvers his plans for his Great Society through a recalcitrant U.S. political landscape. Often appeasing the likes of Illinois Senator Dirksen, Martin Luther King, Governor George Wallace, and a pompous board of doctors from the AMA, he rams through bills aimed at fighting for civil rights and against poverty. His social and political skills are simply breathtaking. And yet, hovering so near him seemingly at every turn are General Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, bringing with them the specter of an escalating Viet Nam War.
The fight Johnson and King put up for the Voting Rights Bill takes up a great deal of the first act. Johnson is determined to break free from our country’s “legacy of bigotry,” but must be ever mindful of having less enthusiastic leaders on board with him. Schenkkan has King and Johnson sparing throughout, operating under an uneasy truce. Kenajuan Bentley ably assumes the role of Dr. King, but is overshadowed by the strength of Willis’ performance. Act I ends with the jolting appearance of the 1965-Watts Riots. It seems that the south is not alone in its need to adopt racial justice.
Act II addresses the growing anger of African Americans and the nascent Black Power movement. The War on Poverty continues, but LBJ must continually contend with the overwhelming financial and spiritual costs of Viet Nam. The back wall features a numeric counter, displaying the ever-growing number of dead and wounded Americans. Peter Frechette plays Hubert Humphrey. His character’s weakening stance against a war he knows makes no sense provides some of the saddest moments of the play.
By Act III the war has taken center stage. The conflict proves to be the only force able to defeat the seemingly indestructible Johnson. His proud, steadfast support of a war he never appeared to really believe in will be his tragic downfall. Indeed, the play becomes nearly Shakespearean in its tragic elements as Johnson finally recognizes the horrible place to which he and our country have arrived.
The Great Society is directed by Bill Rauch and will play through January 4 at the Seattle Repertory. Go to https://www.seattlerep.org/Buy/Tickets for show times and more information.