In November, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas; his life and the nation's glamorous "Camelot" period cut down in its prime. Left to take up the mantle of his leadership was his Texan vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who became commander in chief in the wake of Kennedy's death and found himself in a position of huge power at a critical time for America. This is the period in which Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way," currently staged by Palo Alto Players, is set.
The show is a dense, intense look at Johnson's first term in office, from JFK's brutal assassination to LBJ's landslide victory in the 1964 election. Michael Monagle stars in the lead role of LBJ with a cast portraying a gaggle of politicians, activists and other characters of historical significance, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Senator Strom Thurmond, F.B.I Director J. Edgar Hoover and many others. Palo Alto Players' production is a smart and welcome addition to election-season entertainment options, if a bit of a slog at times for those not fascinated by the workings of government (Palo Alto City Council members and candidates were special guests in the audience on opening night).
Much of the play focuses on Johnson's determination to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been proposed by Kennedy but is languishing in Congress thanks to filibusters. By passing the bill, Johnson aims to "out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln." Thwarted by pro-segregationists at every turn, LBJ manages to push the bill forward thanks in part to his mix of compromising and deal-making, bullying and keen understanding of the legislative process. Though it obviously wasn't a cure for the nation's systemic racism (and sexism and other prejudices), the passing of the Civil Rights Act was a major advancement. It also led the way for some of Johnson's other "Great Society" domestic programs: ambitious policies with the goals of eliminating poverty, improving health care, education and the environment and further working toward equality and social justice. So, it's a plot worth rooting for.
"All the Way" dramatizes Johnson's struggles with the racist, southern leaders of his own Democratic party, who are desperate to hang on to segregation. In one powerful scene, these hiss-worthy congressman discuss how they're going to stop civil rights as an African-American (Remi Ferguson, who also portrays Bob Moses) silently shines their shoes. As a proud southerner, LBJ is on friendly terms with these folks and wary of losing their support, but is willing to do so for the sake of advancing the progressive agenda (this lays out very clearly how the South, having voted Democrat for years, switches over to the Republican side). He also has to wheel and deal with Republicans in order to gain their support. On the other side, he must tend his alliance with the more liberal wing of his own party, headed by his future V.P., Senator Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough), whom he alternately courts and manipulates, and the powerful Civil Rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fred Pitts). King is having struggles of his own, trying to reconcile his message of nonviolence with those who yearn for more radical action.
The first half of the show is the more compelling, and it could have satisfactorily ended after act one. In fact, some of the audience members on opening night did indeed think the show was over at intermission. The second act, which chronicles the Freedom Summer, the fight over whether to seat Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates at the Democratic convention and Johnson's presidential campaign, including challenges from segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace and arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, drags in the middle, although spirited performances and deft direction by Peter Allas help. Projections by Randy Wong-Westbrooke set the scenes and liven up the atmosphere, including a video of LBJ's infamously ominous "Daisy" commercial (the one with the little girl and the atomic bomb). And the conclusion (it's not a spoiler if it's part of history), in which LBJ is left feeling ambivalent about his future, despite his resounding electoral victory, works well.
Although there is big cast of interesting characters, "All the Way" is most definitely LBJ's show. At first Monagle's performance as Johnson struck me as reminiscent of Dana Carvey imitating George Bush on "Saturday Night Live," but as time went on, I was able to enjoy and accept him as the larger-than-life president, a man so different, thanks to his folksy and downright crude mannerisms, from his charming and upper-crust predecessor but who, behind the good-old-boy veneer, was fiercely intelligent and a master politician. Monagle's Johnson is no saint. However, he's genuinely concerned with doing his job as president well and making the country better, even at the expense of his political alliances and personal health. He's also quite funny, with plenty of snappy quips and Southern-fried wisdom.
Pitts, as King, has a hard job portraying such an iconic figure and again I struggled at first with him in the role, but he, too, does well at making the revered leader human. Gough is likeable and admirable as whipping-boy Humphrey, and Shannon Turner shines in a brief but powerful appearance as Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. Gwendolyne Wagner, as first lady Ladybird Johnson, is mostly a token supportive figure but we do get to see a bit of her own grit and power.
All in all, "All the Way" is an impressive production and well worth seeing, especially against the backdrop of our own politically tense time. Johnson's legacy has been tainted by the disastrous Vietnam War, which is foreshadowed in the play. But this examination of his early days in office is a good look back at his important role in advancing the United States forward.
What: "All the Way"
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through Nov. 18. Thursday-Sunday.
Info: Go to PA Players.