Lyndon Baines Johnson had about him an uncouth savagery which, like much else about the man, was larger than life. He also had a perverse need to be loved. "All the Way," the new play by Robert Schenkkan, which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, captures these contradictions, and little else about the man.
Jack Willis, in an explosive performance as LBJ, coaxes, cajoles, horse-trades, manipulates, sweats and blackmails his way to his twin objectives of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.
As he wheels and deals his way around the Bowmer stage, Willis dominates almost every scene, buttonholing pols, underlings and foes alike, throwing an arm around his prey to squeeze the flesh and physically bring the victim into his forcefield. It was a technique known as the Johnson Treatment, or sometimes The Texas Treatment.
Willis is a big man in a big play: 17 actors playing 50 or 60 characters in an epic drama about the seeking of power, its use, and the relationship of politics and morality. If it all sounds quite Shakespearean, it is consciously so.
Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Kentucky Cycle," has alluded to the play's Shakespearean nature in interviews: the outsized, tragically flawed central character, the themes of ambition, power, governance.
This LBJ is not, however, a tragic hero. The play's time is Nov. 22, 1963, through Nov. 3, 1964, from the assassination of President Kennedy to Johnson's triumph at the polls. It's one of the most successful arcs in American history, but it's a success story, and merely the first act in a tragedy that would unfold over the next four years.
The play's spine is Johnson's indomitable struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act, an effort seemingly doomed because racist Southern politicians such as Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and James Eastland of Mississippi held key chairmanships they used to bottle up bills they didn't like. Much of the play is given over in great detail to Johnson's often clever, usually profane and always relentless striving to get what he wants.
The outcome — passage of the act — cost the Democrats the South as white racists switched to the Republican party, leading Johnson to remark in a notable understatement, "The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime."
There are some compelling interpretations. A giddy take on the racist hypocrite blackmailer J. Edgar Hoover by Richard Elmore, who even looks the part. Johathan Haugen's cocky little bantam rooster George Wallace. Keven Kenerly's powerful portrait of Robert Moses chafing at the leadership of the more conservative Martin Luther King Jr.
Kenajuan Bentley is a complex King, a flawed idealist who can see the need for compromise. Doug Rowe's performance as Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, LBJ's mentor, includes a ruefulness about the man's split with his student. In one scene, Johnson symbolically eats a piece of food from Russell's plate.
Peter Frechette's Sen. Hubert Humphrey is a Johnson toady, a white Stepin Fetchit who will do anything to get on the ticket as Johnson's running mate. Terri McMahon is a hoot as the fluttering, stand-by-your-man Lady Bird Johnson. "Fix your lipstick," LBJ growls at her. "Get away from me."
As with Henry V, there is some uncertainty over how we are to take some of the possibly ironic actions and statements of the central character. "Everybody wants power," LBJ says. "Nothin' comes free. Not even good." And my favorite, "There's no place for nice in a knife fight."
Yet he risks all to do the right thing. Schenkkan comes down clearly on the side of those who think Johnson, conscious of his mortality (Johnson men died young, and he had heart trouble) and the eyes of history, simply acted according to his better angels.
A tender, almost pathetic side of LBJ comes out in his relationship with Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), the Johnson aide later forced out in a sex scandal after a drunken encounter with another man in a public restroom. Jenkins is the nearest thing to the son LBJ never had, but Johnson throws him overboard with icy abandon. In the end, Johnson remains opaque.
Briskly directed by Bill Rauch, "All the Way" is entertaining and feels shorter than its three hours. Schenkkan has said it's not a docu-drama, but it walks right up to the line. It is a dramatization of details of the historic record rather than an imaginative leap in the spirit of political playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht, John Osborne, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal or even Tony Kushner.
There's also a way in which "All the Way" is not Shakespearean at all. Shakespeare's history plays, which were about power and the need to avoid chaos, operated on multiple levels. They were "about" their historical characters on an outer level. But Shakespeare also played a dangerous game of peopling them with characters and themes playgoers would recognize on a hidden level as contemporary. "All the Way" operates only on the first level.
Schenkkan could have made LBJ himself, at least, a more Shakespearean character by including his second term. The first act would have ended with Johnson's re-election, the second would follow him into the quagmire of Vietnam and end with his Richard II-like relinquishing of the crown in 1968.
This is prefigured by Johnson and his aides reacting to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which would lead directly to the Vietnam War, as a confusing farce that led Johnson to quip that sailors may have been shooting at fish. Maybe there will be a second play?
While the play does not founder in the manner of "Party People," the season's other history play, it sheds no new light on its subject. In the end, "All the Way" tells us things we already know.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.