The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s second play dramatizing the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson—a presidency that began and ended in tragedy—is even more breathless and incident-packed than the first. Reuniting the same director and principal cast that brought its precursor, All the Way, to Arena Stage two years ago, the show speed-walks us through the internal strains within the civil rights movement and the deepening quagmire in Vietnam, covering four of America’s most fractious years since the Civil War in just 2.5 hours, intermission included. All the Way used the same amount of time to show us the Johnson Administration’s first 11 months.
If the sheer velocity of Kyle Donnelly’s frenetic staging leaves little time for poetry or pretty stage pictures, it certainly keeps tedium at bay. Beyond that, it builds into a sense of vertiginous dread at living through a time of political assassinations, racial violence, and elective war. By the time President-elect Richard Milhous Nixon announces his intention to “Make America great again”—a line Schenkkan must have written no more recently than 2014, when The Great Society was first produced, unless it was an aftermarket addition—the half-century since Nixon’s 49-state blowout victory has been erased. There is only the terrifying present, wherein a president who wanted the government to be a friend to the most vulnerable Americans was succeeded by a paranoid despot-in-waiting.
Jack Willis, who originated the role of LBJ in both plays’ original Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions before getting bigfooted out of the role by Bryan Cranston for the Broadway and HBO productions, reprises it here, to somber and compelling effect. Also returning from All the Way are Bowman Wright, JaBen Early, Craig Wallace, and Desmond Bing as civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy, and Bob Moses, respectively, along with Richmond Hoxie as a rodent-like J. Edgar Hoover, John Scherer as a supercilious Robert F. Kennedy, Tom Wiggin as a professorial Robert McNamara, and Cameron Folmar as Alabama Governor George Wallace (and also, less convincingly, as Nixon.)
Folmar’s Wallace is most prominent in a relatively long section devoted to the negotiations between Washington and Montgomery, Alabama, concerning three March 1965 civil rights marches, dramatized in full in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma. This is an echo of how All the Way’s best scenes, concerning the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s efforts to be recognized at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, addressed a bit of history that warranted its own play—in that case, Regina Taylor’s A Seat at the Table.
Once again, the abundant double-casting and quick-changes means a lot of not-terribly-convincing wigs, and once again, you feel bad for the accomplished actors—D.C. veterans Susan Rome and Megan Graves and Arena Stage first-timer Deonna Bouye—who deliver only a line or two as the spouses of the various great men of history.
Projection designer Aaron Rhyne rings the walls of the in-the-round Fichandler Stage with periodic casualty counts from Southeast Asia, culminating in a clip from Walter Cronkite’s famous February 1968 primetime broadcast declaring the war a stalemate, and urging the U.S. to negotiate a peace “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” He could have been eulogizing Johnson, who didn’t live long enough after declining to seek reelection to see Nixon resign in disgrace.
At Arena Stage to March 11. 1101 6th St. SW. $50–$99. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.