Credit: Handout photo by Stan Barou

All the Way sounds like a title of an early-’80s sex comedy, but its provenance is older than that: It was the campaign slogan with which President Lyndon B. Johnson sought in 1964 to be elected to the office he’d inherited after Lee Harvey Oswald’s lucky shot in Dallas the year before. The first of Robert Schenkkan’s two dense history plays about the wily Texas Democrat focuses on his fight to honor slain President John F. Kennedy’s promise to pass the Civil Rights Act—and win the presidency after alienating much of his own party though that commitment. Like Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln (scripted by playwright Tony Kushner and released the same year All the Way was first performed), it wades through the sordid dealings and queasy choices that proved necessary to force the country forward on race.

Next month’s HBO version of All the Way will see Bryan Cranston reprise the starring role that won him a Tony Award two years ago. But Kyle Donnelly’s breathless, unsyncopated production for Arena Stage has Jack Willis, who originated the part within its initial Oregon Shakespeare Festival production. Droll, tetchy, and exhausted, Willis’ LBJ—one that looks and sounds less like the genuine article than Cranston’s, though that doesn’t matter—is the best reason to show up. At the end of the long evening, you’ll be glad the dirty job of outfoxing the likes of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama (Cameron Folmar) and Sen. Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia (Lawrence Redmond) didn’t fall to a nicer guy.

It’s a shame that the complexity Schenkkan and Willis bring to their LBJ (who is heard in the show’s first moment to utter the N-word, though he doesn’t use it nearly as often as the real LBJ did) isn’t replicated in the show’s other giant: Bowman Wright’s Martin Luther King Jr. Wright played a more richly imagined version of King at Arena three years ago in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. This time around, he evokes the civil rights leader’s integrity and courage but not King’s more seductive qualities.

That’s surprising, given how much time the show spends on King’s attempts to persuade his more militant allies in the movement (JaBen Early’s Stokley Carmichael, Desmond Bing’s Bob Moses) not to give up on Johnson, as well as on his infidelities. King gave malignant FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Richmond Hoxie), whose obsessive surveillance of him was hardly for the oft-threatened reverend’s protection, plenty of ammo. While LBJ orders Hoover to knock it off, he still listens to Hoover’s audio of King’s motel-room trysts for kicks. Whether that beat has a basis in history or not, it’s kind of an illuminating detail All the Way could use a little more of.

With dozens of characters barreling through 11-and-a-half tense months of U.S. history in truck-sized bolts of exposition, the show doesn’t leave much room for anyone other than LBJ to evince an inner life. Those tightest with him come the closest: As Walter Jenkins, the president’s right hand, John Scherer renders a heartbreaking performance, and Susan Rome stirs admiration and pity as Lady Bird Johnson. Still, Donnelly’s florid pacing too often feels like an all-night cram session before the final exam. Scene changes are marked with no music and only minimal lighting adjustments; the action merely concludes in one part of the in-the-round Fichandler Stage and starts right up in another. Here and there, the juxtaposition achieves a thrilling effect, as when Willis’ LBJ watches Folmar’s Wallace deliver a speech on TV that we can see Folmar performing in the corner. A ring of period-appropriate television sets suspended above the stage give us the closed-circuit, black-and-white broadcast.

Even with 17 actors, double- and triple-casting is abundant enough that wigs and bald-caps are often laughable; presumably there just isn’t time during these backstage quick-changes to make them more convincing. While the sweep and speed of things can be intoxicating, I wished Donnelly would’ve calmed the pace, or Schenkkan would’ve chosen to survey fewer characters over a smaller plot of time. The play’s most compelling section comes in Act Two, when we reach the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. The Mississippi Freedom Party picketed outside the building, demanding that their delegates be seated in place of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party’s delegation. All of Johnson and King’s impossible choices—including the former’s fears of being perceived to take orders from the latter—are captured in those four days.

The show’s forbidding nature registers as both a flaw and a strength, somehow. Audiences not conversant, via memory or education, in the national affairs of half a century ago are likely to find themselves reeling. Nowhere is this best demonstrated than when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (David Bishins) comes into the Oval Office with a sketchy report of a Navy destroyer being fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. A few older audience members gasped—an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this episode would be used to justify a war that led to the deaths of more than 7,200 African Americans in one decade along with tens of thousands of other Americans and Vietnamese. And if you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President.

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