A TEXAN WHO BECOMES AN ACCIDENTAL HERO IS VERY SHAKESPEAREAN
‘ALL THE WAY’ IS A MUST SEE, IT REFLECTS THE POWER OF ONE PERSON TO TRANSFORM
The oval office of 1964 is now open at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, and the “Accidental President” Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election looms. The time is close to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American voters are about to experience some momentous social change.
The East Bay Area premiere of the Tony Award-winning ALL THE WAY by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan is the powerful historical drama about President Lyndon B. Johnson's first year in office as he struggles to pass the historic Civil Rights Act. ALL THE WAY features a cast of over twenty local favorite Bay Area actors, bringing to life more than 60 historical figures including Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and Lady Bird Johnson. ALL THE WAY runs through May 5th at the CCCT Hoffman stage in El Cerrito.
Backroom deals between the infamous and the influential take center stage in this historic drama. The play mirrors our Trump era, and at nearly three hours the story moves well like Shakespeare; all the characters fit the atmosphere. ALL THE WAY is directed by CCCT Artistic Director Marilyn Langbehn who says 1964 is a monumental year in US history and far from the end of the story. “Even now more than fifty years after he left office, Lyndon Johnson inspires hatred in some quarters and admiration and awe in others” says Langbehn.
The title is based on the slogan “All the Way With LBJ”. Like a classic Elizabethan figure the conflicted tough talking commander-in-chief takes himself into 1964 Civil Rights legislation. A King Lear bully, he enacts major social programs, faces down opponents, and wins the 1964 election in a landslide. The cast of ALL THE WAY features the terrific John Hale as LBJ and the gifted Khary L. Moye as Martin Luther King, Jr. Both actors have worked with Langbehn on previous productions; Hale as ex-President Richard Nixon in the Bay Area premiere of Frost/Nixon at Douglas Morrison Theatre, and Moye as Dr. King from CCCT’s production of The Mountaintop.
The ensemble of 21 includes some of the best local Bay Area character actors including Mick Renner as Sen. Richard Russell, the elegant Kim Donovan as Lady Bird, the dapper David Bogdonoff as Hubert Humphrey, the accomplished David Ghilardi as J. Edgar Hoover, and local favorite Michael Sally as the bully George Wallace. Some historians believe that if it weren’t for the Vietnam era LBJ would be remembered as a great president, a successor to Kennedy and FDR.
LBJ had to make compromises, but he knew that if he took his time, he would get what he needed. Martin Luther King Jr., had to compromise with activists Stokely Carmichael played by the confident Umi Grant who kept Dr King in check. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was monitoring all their conversations including his sexual encounters.
The story reveals some of Johnson’s relationships and It’s a pleasure to watch him dealing with his mentor, Senator Richard Russell, wonderful portrayal by Mick Renner. We also see his fatherly feelings toward Walter Jenkins played by the polished Jeremy Cole; gently self-effacing, he eventually betrays POTUS. There are important scenes with Lady Bird sympathetically played by the superb Donovan. Local favorite Moye walks in Martin Luther King’s shoes with dignity, he reprises the role of MLK he played earlier at CCCT. "Nothin' comes free. Nothin.' Not even good," LBJ says in a direct address to the audience "Especially not good."
Schenkkan keeps the action moving forward, he reveals some current political realities, including the downsizing of the Republican Party as the Democrats become the party of justice. “The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime and maybe yours,” LBJ observes. Schenkkan includes a documented LBJ quote: “What’s the point of being a president if you can’t do what you know is right?.” LBJ’s love for his wife Lady Bird is an important element as with many lead women she controls a lot of this History. Johnson has a love hate relationship with liberal senator Hubert Humphrey played by Bogdonoff and the undying support offered of aide Walter Jenkins who inspires the power in the man.
By the second act LBJ is feeling demoralized; the most thin-skinned of bullies, Hale communicates all flaws of this great man. This is a verbal play and much of the dialog is about politics, DC procedures, and Senate bills that go nowhere. "You know what the ugliest sound in the world is, Hubert?" asks Johnson. "The tick, tick, tick of a clock. All the men in my family die young - I almost died of that heart attack ten years ago. . I ain't got much time left." foreshadows POTUS decision not to run in the future.
Scenic designer Katie Whitcraft keeps the Oval Office simple with the centerpiece being LBJ’s desk. Four TV screens tell the news of the era and the images are real historical news reel. The busy props by Devon LaBelle include classic dial phones that needed to be slammed by almost all the featured actors and the classic pen to sign the Civil Rights Act including balloons for the election celebration. Hoover's FBI team needed some classic tape recording equipment and Lady Bird used the perfect cups and tea to serve in the Oval Office. The four TV screens feature politicians making speeches periodically, shout from the walls of POTUS office. To set the mood Projections designer Michael Kelly treated the audience as they filed into the CCCT Flynn Theatre the screens played retro TV commercials. The flickering black-and-white images instant memories to our pillbox past: Soap ads, Gunsmoke then close to 8pm a flash news break is broadcast to announce the tragedy in Dallas.
Costumes by Debra Britt keep perfect 60’s Mad Men style, what is missing is Hoover’s dresses, but that is for another play yet to be written. Lady Bird’s and Corretta King’s dresses bring color to the Grey suits and ties of the male cast. The women’s dresses are sleek and 60’s and bring to mind the many dresses we saw on Mrs Kennedy and elegant gowns for the Election Ball. Courtney Johnson’s lighting is moody for the side scenes, especially in Dr Kings office. But the lights are white and bright for the Oval Office. The down stage monologues by LBJ are lit well with the highlight back light crowning POTUS. Stage manager Mackenzie Laurel Orvis has a cast of almost 20 men to wrangle and it was impressive to see so many local favorite silver hair male actors in this cast.
Like every Elizabethan drama ALL THE WAY reminds us that the more things change they seem to remain the same. Throughout the play we are reminded that many of the issues faced by LBJ; the civil unrest, white police killing black men, the dirty politics and two faced politicians are identical to those we face today. Don't sit this one out the play is no less epic in scope, Shakespeare 1964. Next up CCCT ends its 2019 season with ONCE ON THIS ISLAND that opens June 14th. In the meantime the Oval Office of 1964 is the room to be in.
Contra Costa Civic Theatre Presents
ALL THE WAY
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Marilyn Langbehn,
Must close May 5th
CC Civic Theatre
951 Pomona Ave
El Cerrito 94530
Running time: 2 hours 45 min with one intermission
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio.
Mick Renner as Sen. Richard Russell, Kim Donovan as Lady Bird Johnson, Jeremy Cole as Walter Jenkins, David Bogdonoff as Hubert Humphrey, David Ghilardi as J. Edgar Hoover, Terrance Smith as Ralph Abernathy, Michael Sally as George Wallace, Kimberly Ridgeway as Coretta Scott King/Fanny Lou Hamer, Laszlo Horner as Robert S. McNamara, Susan Monsøn as Muriel Humphrey, Umi Grant as Stokely Carmichael, Edward Pieczenik as Strom Thurmond, Richard Friedlander as Everett Dirksen, Aaron Jones as Bob Moses, Jay Krohnengold as "Judge" Smith, James McGarry as Deke DeLoach, Jason Berner as Stanley Levison, Will Robinson as Roy Wilkins, and Ben Knoll as Sen. James Eastland.