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All the Way ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 11, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Robert Schenkkan’s exhilarating play, All the Way, allows us to step into the very large Texas boots of our 36th President.  Set between November of 1963 and November of 1964, it is set in the time of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s sudden and untimely ascension to the presidency and his efforts toward passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

(L to R) Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

All the pivotal players of the period are represented and the cast adopts many roles in filling in for the lesser characters.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, oftimes terrifying yet indelibly effective, larger-than-life president at the peak of his powers.  Then there’s Lady Bird (Susan Rome), Walter Jenkins (John Scherer), George Wallace (Cameron Folmar) and his wife Lurleen Wallace (Adrienne Nelson), Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Richmond Hoxie as the slithery, red-baiting J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as his henchman Cartha DeLoach, David Bishins as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Tom Wiggin as Stanley Levison, the white civil rights activist.

(L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Pitted against the lawmakers, influence peddlers and power brokers were those black Americans who had been lobbying tirelessly for voting rights and anti-discrimination laws.  Maintaining peace between the activists, the protesters and church representatives were Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bowman Wright), NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney) and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace) who kept the younger, more outspoken SNCC student activists, led by Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early) and Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), from squandering an opportunity to change the course of history.  Shannon Dorsey becomes an integral part of this flawless cast as Coretta Scott King.

(L to R) Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh.

There are so many knock-out performances to chronicle, but most memorable are LBJ, MLK, Lady Bird and Wallace, whose stump speech echoes a few of today’s presidential candidates and will throw chills up your spine.

(L to R) Stephen F. Schmidt, David Emerson Tony, Richard Clodfelter and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Stephen F. Schmidt, David Emerson Tony, Richard Clodfelter and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Under Kyle Donnelly’s superb direction this groundbreaking production emerges as a riveting tale of back door dealings, arm-twisting, personal threats and bullying, ameliorated by a hefty dose of schmoozing, drinking and ego-stroking in the Oval Office.  LBJ made it his business to find everyone’s Achilles’ heel and capitalize on it, even brutalize it if he needed to.  As to succeeding at passing the Civil Rights Act, he declares, “I’m gonna out-Roosevelt, Roosevelt!”  The story presents Johnson warts and all – from Southern charm and foul language to his innate political savvy.

(L to R) Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Photo by Stan Barouh.

No interaction between the characters is stagnant with Set Designer Kate Edmunds’ rotating presidential seal depicting the Oval Office.  Players step on and off, circulating, converging and dispersing.  It is hugely effective lending an intense and immediate energy.  Less effective are the multiple TV screens above the stage, so compelling is the action on stage.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast. Photo by Stan Barouh.

When at last the bill sees passage after all Johnson’s wrangling, he admits, “There’s no gracious losers.  There’s no sore losers – just the walking dead.”  There’s a whiff of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a memorable speech by civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, and a dramatic turn in recalling the tragedy of the three murdered students, killed while trying to register black voters registered in Mississippi.

Highly recommended.  (N. B. There is a wealth of salty language, inappropriate for children.)

Through May 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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