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  • 'Great Society' a darker sequel to 'All the Way'

  • There's always been something deeply Shakespearean about the career of the enigmatic Lyndon Baines Johnson: An outsize personality comes to power courtesy of an act of horrific violence, proves himself a master of dominating men and events, goes too far, has things end badly.
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  • There's always been something deeply Shakespearean about the career of the enigmatic Lyndon Baines Johnson: An outsize personality comes to power courtesy of an act of horrific violence, proves himself a master of dominating men and events, goes too far, has things end badly.
    It's tempting to compare the LBJ of Robert Schenkkan's new history play, "The Great Society," to Shakespeare's Henry IV, who started an ill-fated, far-off war "to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels," who wanted his subjects to "march all one way," and who wound up drowning in his own melancholy fatigue.
    But of course LBJ did no such thing. He inherited Vietnam from President Kennedy, who inherited it from President Eisenhower, who had allowed the CIA to leap into the colonial gap created by the collapse of the French enterprise in Southeast Asia with an assist from Ho Chi Minh in 1954. But when his time came, LBJ bought in, turning a mole hill into a mountain.
    "Ah'm not gonna be the president who lost Asia," Jack Willis's LBJ drawls with finality (possibly with tacit apologies to Winston Churchill, who once declared he didn't become prime minister to "preside over the liquidation of the British Empire").
    "The Great Society," which had its world premiere Sunday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre, is the sequel to "All the Way," which debuted at OSF in 2012 and which, in its New York production, recently won Broadway's Tony Award as best play of 2013. "The Great Society" is a co-production with Seattle Rep and the latest from the OSF's "American Revolutions," the hugely ambitious, ongoing history project conceived by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch.
    "All the Way," which detailed a frequently Machiavellian LBJ's struggle to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, portrayed the events of a single year and felt as packed as an overstuffed sausage. You almost expected a civics quiz in the lobby after the show. "The Great Society" produces a broader, more sweeping effect, occupying the four years of LBJ's elected term and a plethora of problems.
    This time out, LBJ (Willis, in a masterful performance) launches the Great Society programs that would reduce poverty and transform the face of America. At the same time, he struggles to come to terms with cities going up in flames and angry calls for black power beginning to supplant Martin Luther King Jr.'s (Kenajuan Bentley) plea for nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights.
    And then there's that little problem thing in Vietnam. In the 1964 campaign, Johnson had painted conservative Republican Barry Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger and promised he would not send Americans half-way around the world "to do the job that Asian boys should do."
    In Schenkkan's account, the indomitable Johnson has no heart for committing American forces to Vietnam but is persuaded by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Mark Murphey), a Kennedy holdover, to OK an fateful airfield and a detachment of U.S. Marines, the foot in the door that would ultimately seal Johnson's fate and the fates of countless others.
    "My answer is yes," Willis intones in un-LBJ-like ambivalence, "but my judgment is no."
    In a long (more than three hours) play, it's a curiously quick exploration of the events that would lead to a 10-year tragedy unparalleled in the nation's history. In a drama of this sweep, what you leave out may be as important as what you put in. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which Johnson used as a pretext to expand the Vietnam conflict (he would later say that for all he knew the U.S. navy "was shooting at whales out there") is conspicuous by its absence.
    In another scene, in a cryptic nod to McNamara's annual assurances that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam, the president declares mournfully, "There ain't no light in Vietnam."
    Meanwhile, Johnson tries to persuade King to call off the civil rights marches that would lead to Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when racist cops attacked and beat peaceful civil rights demonstrators marching to Montgomery, Ala. Projections of contemporary photographs on large screen above the stage fill in the gaps for those who don't remember.
    While the LBJ of "All the Way" went to the mat for King's cause using every political trick in the book and few more he invented, because he believed in his heart it was right, the LBJ of "The Great Society" is more of a Machiavelli, urging King to hold off lest a white backlash swamp the Democrats in the mid-term elections of 1966.
    As Rauch suggests in his director's notes, the ebullience of "All the Way" gives way here to something altogether darker and more tragic. In the second act, Johnson has a dream in which it's World War II and he's in a plane that's going down in flames after an attack by Japanese Zeros. His dilemma: whether to leap to his death or remain in the flaming plane and be incinerated. It's a neat metaphor for LBJ in 1966. He's lost control of the war, the civil rights movement, the Congress — and whichever way he turns, he's toast.
    And he's out of alternatives. He's gone from the landslide victory of '64 and the heady passage of landmark legislation to the pit of despair, an arc worthy of a Macbeth or a Richard III. Perhaps Schenkkan is even nodding at a model that predates Shakespeare by two millennia, the fruits of hubris, the most classic of classical Greek drama's tragic flaws.
    "I did this," LBJ says of the wreckage around him late in the play.
    For all the drama of those years, and all the power of Willis' performance, one is still left with the feeling that the playwright is telling us things we already know. OK, now what?
    There are several strong performances in addition to Willis' tour de force. Kenajuan Bentley as a brilliant, principled, increasingly frustrated Martin Luther King Jr. Jonathan Haugen as little banty rooster Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and a smarmy, cynical Richard Nixon.
    Rauch's direction gives this sprawling epic plenty of focused momentum, except for an overlong and less-than-riveting second act. Otherwise, the main theme the morality of power (isn't that an oxymoron?) remains in focus.
    Those who say the last good history plays were written by Shakespeare, who invented the genre, should take a look at the "American Revolutions" project. It's larger than life, uneven, alternately triumphant and tragic and usually fascinating, much like its subject this time around.
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