(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)
While Shakespeare’s might be the most famous history plays, Pulitzer-Prize winner Rob Schenkkan gives the Bard a run for his money with a look into twentieth century American politics.
“All the Way,” playing at Zach Theatre through May 10, details the early Presidential career of Lyndon Baines Johnson, bringing to life a pivotal moment in American political history.
The show won the 2014 Tony award for Best Play, and it’s easy to see why. The beautifully crafted script provides crisp dialogue and evenly paced dramatic arcs as it depicts LBJ’s (Steve Vinovich) struggle to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidential election.
Directed by Dave Steakley, the epic play is almost two shows in one.
The first 90 minutes chart LBJ’s unexpected ascension to the presidency and subsequent dealings with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Melvin Abston) and civil rights leaders. It plunges us into the nitty-gritty wheeling and dealing necessary to get the bill passed in the face of staunch resistance from the Southern senatorial contingent.
The second half of the show then tracks the aftermath, and LBJ’s fight to rally the party and remain in office.
Vinovich is clearly at home in his character (he was the understudy for Brian Cranston who had the role in the show’s Broadway run ) offering a stalwart vision of a president who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers with rough language and off color anecdotes. The consummate politician, his “diplomacy” ultimately stifles true emotional depth. With so much schmooze, it’s difficult to see his genuine connections with people.
Abston commands attention with his patient and collected Dr. King, and the huge ensemble gracefully flits in and out of a dazzling number of roles.
What the production lacks in emotional depth at times, it makes up for in energy and polish.
Cliff Simon’s set design cleverly avails itself of the Topfer Theatre’s technical capabilities and we move smoothly from the Oval Office, to anonymous hotel rooms, to an unmarked grave.
“All the Way” shines for its seemingly honest depiction of a political hero (as “honest” as historical dramatizations can ever be, that is). It doesn’t hold back on the ugly side of LBJ’s politics or prejudices and the casual racist language of the white politicians is startling to our modern, politically corrected ears.
The show also depicts the slimier, manipulative side of American politics – the lying, bartering, and betrayal.
It nevertheless shows us the courage and sacrifice of flawed people fighting for the greater good.
“All the Way” continues through May 10 at Zach Theatre. $25-$88. www.zachtheatre.org