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The Great Society ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 12, 2018 

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Susan Rome (Lady Bird Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s 2016 sequel to his Tony Award-winning All the Way based on Lyndon Johnson’s early presidency and the Civil Rights movement, the playwright continues with the final years of LBJ’s administration between January 1965 till December 1968.  Those of us who lived through these turbulent times will remember how desperately divided the country was during the Vietnam War and the bloody struggle to achieve the Voting Rights Act for African Americans.  I couldn’t help but reflect on our current state – voting machines compromised, Russians interfering with our elections, gerrymandering and trumped-up demands for personal identity keeping legitimate voters from the polls.  The fight continues…

(L to R) Tom Wiggin (Robert McNamara and others) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This second term portrays a president who fell under the deceitful influence of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and F. B. I. Director J. Edgar Hoover.  At the same time, Johnson was sacrificing American lives in the war, he was also pushing a raft of social programs including Medicaid, Medicare and the expansion of immigration.  He was a complicated man during difficult times.

(L to R) Deonna Bouye (Coretta Scott King and others) and Bowman Wright (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Icons in the Civil Rights movement feature prominently – Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses and others whose relationships with Johnson were often stymied by Johnson’s need to pacify his Southern base.  “There’s no issue of state’s rights.  It’s only human rights,” Johnson insists.

There are plenty of dramatic moments depicted here, including a brutal attack on African American marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in George Wallace’s Alabama and another that reflects the savage tactics against the nation’s anti-war protesters.

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Cameron Folmar (Governor George Wallace and others) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Directed by Kyle Donnelly, the play moves back and forth between the escalation of the Vietnam war and the accompanying anti-war protests to Johnson’s tireless efforts to achieve real social change while arm-twisting members of his own party.  A powerful and compelling drama, it reveals much of the rough-and-tumble backroom dealings that later came to light.  LBJ made it his business to exploit his adversaries and capitalize on their weaknesses, even if it took threats to achieve his ends.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, foul-mouthed and oftimes terrifying, yet an indelibly effective, larger-than-life politician armed with buckets of Southern colloquialisms.

(L to R) Lawrence Redmond (Vice President Hubert Humphrey) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Many of the original actors from All the Way return in this tour de force including Jack Willis as LBJ, Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy, Tom Wiggin as McNamara, Bowman Wright as Dr. King, Jaben Early as Stokely Carmichael, John Scherer as Bobby Kennedy, Stephen F. Schmidt as Senator Dirksen, Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson, and Cameron Folmar as Governor George Wallace.  Lawrence Redmond returns in a different role, this time as Hubert Humphrey. Set Designer Kate Edmunds adds rising flames to a rotating presidential seal to remind us of the riots in Watts.

Highly recommended.  Be sure to bring your teens.

Through March 11th, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

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