“The Best Play I’ve Ever Seen”
– by Lee Greene
On Friday, October 31, I had the privilege of attending the Robert Schenkkan play, The Great Society in the Bowmer Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland. The Great Society is the sequel to Schenkkan’s previous play, All the Way. Both plays are part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, which is OSF’s 10-year program (2008-2017) of commissioning up to 37 new plays sprung from moments of change in United States history. All the Way, commissioned and produced by OSF, dramatized the first term of President Lyndon Johnson from the time he succeeded the assassinated John Kennedy in November 1963 through his landslide re-election in November 1964. All the Way premiered here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, went on to play in Cambridge, MA and from there to NYC’s Broadway, where it won 2014 Tony Awards earlier this year for best drama, and for best actor in a dramatic role for Bryan Cranston in the lead role as Lyndon Johnson. The Great Society, commissioned by and co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theater, premiered here this OSF season. The Great Society picks up where All the Way leaves off, dramatizing Lyndon Johnson’s second term as President, from January 1965 through January 1969.
All the Way was universally hailed as a theatrical triumph, well conceived, well documented historically, well written, well staged and extraordinarily well acted. Double Tony awards are tough to come by, the competition on Broadway runs wide and deep. So All the Way is a tough act to follow for The Great Society, as all sequels to hit predecessors face the challenge of living up to their successful antecedents, and rarely succeed in reaching the same heights. However, The Great Society has several things working to its advantage. First, history plays out in its favor. The arc of Johnson’s first term was a pretty straight forward march to victory, in getting the country past the loss of Kennedy, easing public anxiety, pushing through landmark legislation including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and achieving the landslide electoral victory in 1964. His second term, however, as those of us who lived through it will remember, was more of a Greek tragedy, as the Vietnam war spun out of control, civil unrest tore apart the country with race riots and anti-war protests. Adversaries sprung up to attack Johnson and his policies, including Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Eventually the exponential growth of the cost of the war caused the undoing of a lot of what Johnson had accomplished and sought to achieve domestically. Ultimately, Johnson, frustrated by his inability to control events and realize his goals, taunted by his opponents and maligned by crowds of protestors, opted to refuse another term in office, declining to run again in 1968. He left office after the 1968 election an exhausted, frustrated and beaten soul, which is where The Great Society takes us. This is the stuff of high dramatic tension, and once again in The Great Society, it is well conceived, well documented historically, well written and well staged.
A second advantage of The Great Society is the benefit of lessons learned, and re-application of tricks employed successfully in All the Way to depict the personalities around Johnson, stage their interactions with him, and his canny ways of outmaneuvering his competition. What worked in All the Way is applied to good ends in The Great Society.
A third thing benefiting The Great Society is that many of the cast members (though not all) are carry overs from the first play. Many of these actors have inhabited these roles and fleshed out these personalities already, so they are well drawn, deeply filled out personalities, not thin caricatures of infamous politicians. One more advantage of The Great Society over All the Way is the addition on stage of compelling, strong characters not seen or active in the first play, such as Bobby Kennedy.
Something that is consistent between the two plays is the quality of the acting. The cast were superlative in the first play. Dare I say, it is even better in the sequel. As already mentioned, some of these cast members are returning and know these roles cold. Some are new to the sequel, like Danforth Comins, who gives an outstanding portrayal of Sen. Bobby Kennedy. There is one returning actor, whose contribution to this production is central, and whose performance is profoundly, astonishingly superlative. Jack Willis originated the role of Lyndon Johnson in OSF’s original run of All the Way and returns to the role here in The Great Society. He is mesmerizing, utterly believable as Lyndon Johnson, commands the stage and never evinces an unsure moment. With all due respect to Tony Award winning Bryan Cranston, it is hard to imagine a more effective portrayal of Lyndon Johnson than rendered by Mr. Willis in this production of The Great Society.
Okay, all of that said, so how does The Great Society compare to the wildly successful, Tony Award winning All the Way? Well, I can’t avoid the temptation to quote the woman who was seated next to me during the performance, who proclaimed, ”That was THE BEST PLAY I’ve ever seen!” For my part, having lived in New York City and seen a lot of Broadway plays, including quite a few historically great ones, including Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, Rent, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, among many others, I would not want to argue with her. The Great Society certainly was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. It was powerful in gripping one’s attention and emotions, and making one think carefully and hard about Johnson, his wrought-large personality, the fundamental rightness and justice in his philosophical beliefs and domestic policies, the flawed thinking that produced the Vietnam debacle, and the tragedy that befell the man and his presidency as a consequence. The Great Society made me fundamentally and drastically reconsider Johnson and his presidency. I had lived through that time period and those events, as a young draft eligible college student, thoroughly disliking him at the time (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”). But The Great Society made me realize that back then I had never given him his due; never really appreciated what he had set out to do and had accomplished domestically, and certainly didn’t grasp the dynamics of the Greek tragedy that had brought him down and led to his retreat.
By the time you are reading this, OSF will have gone dark, the last performances of the 2014 season in Ashland were presented on November 1. So you won’t be able to see The Great Society performed here in the OSF’s Bowmer Theater, no matter how much I rave about the production. However, The Great Society is not done. Like its predecessor, All the Way, it is merely moving to a new venue, and will soon be playing on the stage of Seattle Repertory Theater in Seattle, with most of the same principal cast. One of the really wonderful joys of this next incarnation of The Great Society, is that Seattle Repertory Theater will be presenting it in repertory along with All the Way. So audiences will be able to see the two plays together, one after another, in one day. If you have not seen one or the other of these two great plays, I heartily encourage you to plan a trip up to Seattle to take advantage of the opportunity to do so.
Given that I think hands down The Great Society is the better of the two plays, I would be stunned if it too does not make it to a Broadway stage. And again, I would be very surprised if it doesn’t receive Tony nominations once it gets there; though it’s impossible to guarantee a win, because one doesn’t yet know what other theatrical wonderments will make it to Broadway at the same time. As I said earlier, the competition on Broadway runs wide and deep. I do sincerely hope that when the The Great Society gets to Broadway, it brings Jack Willis along as Lyndon Johnson. He’s unforgettable in the role and has earned his due, so I entreat the producers, please don’t succumb to the temptation to replace him with a more marquis name.
Now you might want to write off my opinion as provincial or insular – since I now live here in the Rogue Valley, of course I’m going to say good things about local theater. But you see, I am not alone in my high opinion of The Great Society – critics for prominent publications from major urban areas have similarly sung the praises of this production, as you will note, if you watch OSF’s video trailer for The Great Society:
Why, you might ask, have I gone to the trouble to review this play, when OSF has gone dark for the season and my readers can’t go see it in Ashland? Ah, the reason is because of what this play says about the state of theater arts in Southern Oregon and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When I was first settling in the Rogue Valley 16 years ago, having previously resided in the urban centers around New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, culturally elite friends from those locales would often admonish me, in so many words, “How could you move to such a cultural wasteland?” For those urban centers were well known for offering a plentiful amount of performing arts opportunities and anyone who knew me, when I was residing in those urban areas, knew I took full advantage. The Rogue Valley, however, had a reputation as a mill town, a lumber center – and still to this day our legislators lobby Washington for funds, arguing that the area is deprived as a result of the loss of a substantial portion of the lumber industry. Now, some 16 years later, having accumulated some local knowledge, I am in a much better position to offer a rejoinder to that ill-founded and uninformed admonition: “Cultural wasteland? Hardly! Quite the opposite, the Rogue Valley is a veritable cornucopia of quality performing arts offerings, with excellent opportunities to enjoy Emmy award winning theater, superior classical music, and more.” Within the theater arts industry, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has established an enviable reputation as an alive, creative, outstanding, company which is developing top quality, original new works. Since the beginning of the 10-year American Revolutions program in 2008 at OSF, the company has commissioned 23 plays, of which seven have been produced to date. Other companies around the country have enthusiastically brought OSF’s plays to their stages to appreciative audiences and much success. The Great Society, like All the Way before it, attests that Southern Oregon, and OSF, are an incubator of, and venue for enjoying, outstanding (Tony Award winning!) original American plays. When one can attend “The Best Play I’ve Ever Seen” in a theater here in Ashland, that’s certainly worth writing about.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on November 3, 2014 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/best-play-ive-ever-seen-lee-greene/