I still remember where I was when I heard JFK was shot. It was a Californian Catholic classroom. The nun then asked us to put our heads down on our desks and pray. I can still hear Lawrence weeping next to me. It was almost that same hour that “All the Way” begins. This play by Robert Schenkkan opens onboard the flight of Air Force One from Dallas to DC. Lyndon B. Johnson has been sworn in; Kennedy’s body is in the hold and the plane is about to land. Over the next two hours, the audience is transported through the subsequent tumultuous year in US politics, culminating in Johnson’s 1964 election as President. The play takes its name from his campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ!”
The play’s first act is dedicated to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, with an emphasis on the legislative procedures involved and is reminiscent of similar congressional machinations that were portrayed in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. The first act is the stronger of the two and would have been enough of a story to stand on its own, but then it would have told only half of the story. The second act deals with Johnson’s 1964 campaign, where he strived to transform his “accidental presidency” into something more. Its real story though is of the political consequences of the Civil Rights Bill for the Democratic Party. Before ’64 the South had been solidly Democratic. In ’64 several southern states defected to the Republicans and voted for Goldwater. As LBJ predicted, after ’64 the South became solidly GOP. Almost as an afterthought, Vietnam is left nibbling at the periphery of this American tableau.
“All the Way” sports a large cast, featuring most of the political luminaries of the day, including such headliners as Humphrey, Wallace and Hoover. Special attention is paid to Martin Luther King, where his relationship with LBJ is portrayed differently than in the recent “Selma”, which covered events in 1965. Notable absences include Goldwater and Bobby Kennedy. In this sympathetic biography, we see LBJ acting as ringmaster of the nation’s political circus laid bare before us. What carries “All the Way” are the many, some profane, but mostly funny stories and mannerisms this characterization of our 36th President gives us. Throughout both acts, we see Johnson threaten, cajole and flatter his intended opponents, exhibiting whatever facet of the “Johnson Treatment” best suits his purposes and sways his intended subject to his will and sway they do.
Last night’s show was the end of the run at the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Writing about a show that is over is typically of little interest, but after this production, the show will go on. Later this year, HBO will be broadcasting their version of “All the Way”, which will feature Bryan Cranston reprising his 2014 Tony Award winning roll as LBJ. Since, it is too late now to see the Rep’s production, I’ll recommend sight unseen, HBO’s. It is just that good a story.