The Review: Lincoln Center Theater’s The Great Society
I was a bit worried as I walked up to the Vivian Beaumont Theater to see the Lincoln Center Theater‘s grand and wise production of The Great Society written by Robert Schenkkan (All the Way). Standing outside the theatre were hundreds of high school students, taking up too much space, making it difficult to get through, even though, if they were being a bit more thoughtful, there was ample space to gather and not be in the way of people going to the doors of the theater. But yet they seemed oblivious, spreading out, filling the space, and making it difficult to wind our way through. It wasn’t a good sign, as it was clear that these teenagers were going to the same theater that I was going to this afternoon. Most likely, they were being taken to the same solid historical play that I was. A play based on Lyndon B. Johnson, and his determination to build a Great Society. Just how that was that going to turn out was anyone’s guess.
If anyone out there remembers that scene from television’s “Slings and Arrows“, when the seasoned actors, are standing back stage waiting to make their entrance, complaining and moaning about having to perform at student performances, and all the heckling and penny-throwing the actors had to deal with, as they tried, diligently to convey Shakespeare Hamlet to the room. It wasn’t a pretty structural set-up to have in my mind as I pushed my way through the iPhone-hypnotized crowd of students and teachers, particularly on this day. I must admit that I was exhausted from a not-so-great night’s sleep and a busy morning at work, the idea of sitting through a play about one of America’s presidents, even if that man was LBJ, seemed like a challenge. I’m a Canadian, you see, and although I know some American history (probably more than any American knows about Canadian political history – besides how lovely Justin Trudeau is), I don’t know it as well as I’d like as I took my seat. I paused, took a deep breath as the crowds of teens took their seats around me, and pleaded to the theatrical gods that this was all going to turn out well. Or that I didn’t fall asleep.
I had nothing to worry about. As directed with stealth and determination by Bill Rauch (LCT’s The Clean House), this piece of historical theatre was as riveting as one could hope for. The students were mesmerized, barely making a peep, (maybe one of the quietest shows I’ve sat through – not one cell phone went off – not one!) except for one particularly crass word spoken by one of the actors that caused an audible gasp from the crowd. Good, I thought, as it’s a word associated now with the Orange Monster, and I couldn’t have been more pleased that they all seemed to know how wrong that word is. The Great Society pulled me in quickly and thoroughly, far more than I ever could have imagined. Brian Cox (Broadway’s Rock’n’Roll) powerfully embodies LBJ, the 36th President of the United States from the get-go, with his faithful and charming wife, Lady Bird Johnson, beautifully portrayed by Barbara Garrick (Keen Co.’s Later Life) standing steadily at his side. LBJ was sworn into office following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and with that, he was handed the Vietnam War to deal with. But it was really his ambitious slate of progressive reforms that enveloped him, his “War on Poverty” aimed at creating The Great Society for all Americans. He championed many of the programs that still exist (and are under attack) now—Medicare, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act—having a profound and lasting impact in health, education and civil rights. But it was that war, the Vietnam War, that was his Achilles heel. It was his failure to lead the nation out of that marred his legacy in the history books. Under his watch, the number of American troops in Vietnam soared from 16,000 when he took office in 1963 to more than 500,000 in 1968, yet the conflict remained an impossible stalemate, with casualties and the injured, listed defiantly on the back wall, courtesy of set designer David Korins (Broadway’s Beetlejuice), lighting designer, David Weiner (Broadway’s The Price), and most importantly, projection design by Victoria Sagady (Broadway’s Leap of Faith), that added fuel to an uncomfortable fire.
The other flame that was burning at the same time, close enough to scald him, was a movement that would challenge his negotiating ways as he attempted to change American through social reform. The Civil Rights Movement, with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., dynamically and stylistically portrayed by Grantham Coleman (Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing), standing up proudly to LBJ as the champion of non-violent confrontation, and the leader of that important movement. With his strong and sturdy wife, Coretta Scott King, dynamically portrayed by Nikkole Salter (DR2’s Gloria: A Life) lending her unflinching but concerned support, King, Jr. rose up and tried his best to work solidly and faithfully with Lyndon B. Johnson and his Vice President, the Former Senator and long time supporter of civil rights, Hubert Humphrey, strongly portrayed by Richard Thomas (Broadway’s The Little Foxes). It was a complicated path, filled with holes and slippery stones to blindside one or the other, and destabilize the secure stance they, at one time, believed they had with one another.
Then there is the relationship he had with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, deftly portrayed by the always wonderful Bryce Pinkham (Broadway’s Holiday Inn) as the Democratic NY Senator and former Attorney General, who was the party rival to LBJ. Their interactions beautifully demonstrate all the complications that are difficult to manage in that political world, when personal opinions and arrogance outweigh the good of the country, something we sadly are seeing in today’s politics with a greater and more obvious clarity. The play is filled to the brim with other solid and stellar performances of well known historical figures, overflowing into the political side lines of that beautiful stage, such as the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley (Marc Kudisch); J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp); Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood), the Senate Minority Leader (R) from Illinois who helped pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968; U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961-1968, Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch); Army General and commander of the U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland (Brian Dykstra); civil rights activist and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Bob Moses (Tramell Tillman); civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis (Marchant Davis); and American civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Ty Jones). In what is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play, the tragedy of Jimmie Lee Jackson, beautifully portrayed by the engaging Christopher Livingston, floats out strongly for us to take in. The Great Society breathes life and courage into the story of the young civil rights activist whose death inspired the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. It stings forward, whispering into our ears his unforgettable story. This, in essence, is what makes The Great Society hypnotic. They take the facts, and force the blinders off the horse, forcing the pain and the emotionality of the events to inhabit our soul and make us curious with care, even if it causes us to get a wee bit scared of what it all means.
Stay or jump, they say, and LBJ, when he sees the literal writing on the wall, concedes defeat, and declines to run for a second term in office. He retires to his Texas ranch in January 1969, as we watch one of the last memorial images and scenarios of The Great Society, take his iconic place in national history. It is the silhouette of Richard Nixon, dutifully portrayed by David Garrison (CSC’s Dead Poets Society), who also, appropriately plays the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, the defiant opposer of integration and voting rights, as well as the Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Jim Clark who was responsible for several violent arrests of civil rights protestors during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Garrison’s Nixon is the epitome of all we associate with that man, thanks to some fine work by costume designer Linda Cho (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact), with equally solid sound design by Marc Salzberg (LCT/Broadway’s Oslo) and composer/sound designer Paul James Prendergast (TFANA’s Julius Caesar). With his wife Pat, portrayed by Angela Pierce (Broadway’s Norman Conquests) standing at his side, as all the wives seem to do, the man feels as shifty and dishonest as the man currently in office, although maybe just a bit less. The final moments ring true, and a warning to us all. I hope those kids seated around me take note, as they are our future, in a way. The Great Society that LBJ did attempt to formulate is at war with the current administration. It could all crumble before our very eyes, and change the whole way America looks after their own. It’s a horribly scary scenario, but I’m glad those kids were as taken as I was. You could have heard a pin drop in that theatre, and that, I must say, is the biggest compliment you can give this solidly smart and captivating new play.