On Stage: ‘The Great Society’ Review

The second half of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning play on Lyndon Baines Johnson comes to Arena Stage. 

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson with Elliott Bales, Brook Berry, Alana D. Sharp and Andrew Weems in The Great Society running February 2-March 11, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Several years ago at the conclusion of a one-man play on President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the Kennedy Center, I approached his daughter Lynda Johnson Robb to ask her what she thought of the portrayal of her father. She looked at me for a moment and then grabbed the lapels of my suit pulling me against her and taking me off balance.

“This is how daddy would deal with you,” she said.

She wasn’t angry with my question, she was only emphasizing how intimidating her father was and that the actor who had portrayed him couldn’t effectively represent President Johnson’s forceful presence.

I couldn’t help thinking of that experience at the opening night of Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society” at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre. It is difficult for any actor to portray Johnson, a man who fit the phrase — larger than life. For all his character flaws, including the morass of the Vietnam War that he waded into and couldn’t extricate himself from, he was one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history.

Yes he was crude, vulgar, a bully, a womanizer and an egotist, but he was also a master politician who had spent most of his life in Washington, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate where he rose to majority leader. He had ambitions for the ultimate power of the presidency and had been forced onto John F. Kennedy’s ticket because the Massachusetts Democrat could not have won without him.

The Kennedy assassination catapulted Johnson into the presidency during one of the most turbulent periods of American history. There must have been times following the landslide victory he won on his own and during the four years from 1964 to 1968 (“The Great Society” time period) that he wondered why he wanted the White House so much.

There was his Great Society legislative battles, and the violence against the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the ugly confrontation at the Edwin Pettus Bridge that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill that he knew would end the Democratic Party’s dominance in the Southern states. And throughout it all was the festering expansion of the War in Vietnam.

Attempting to cover all of that, with a cast of 17 characters from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Everett Dirksen, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Bobby Kennedy, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Martin Luther King, to black power militant Stokely Carmichael, not to forget Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara coming in from time to time to report on the necessity of sending still more troops to southeast Asia, added to an at times confusing evening at Arena Stage.

It was that turbulent period, especially the protests against the expanding war in Vietnam that forced Johnson to decide not to seek reelection. In the Johnson role, Jack Willis’s performance was more than competent. His performance wasn’t the problem or that of most of the other actors in the production. But for people of a certain age in Washington who lived through the 1960s, or who had an acquaintance, if only in passing, with some of the major political players, it is difficult to suspend memory and accept an actor who confronts an understandable difficulty in rising to the unique stature of the men being portrayed.

Unfortunately Schenkkan tries to cover too much territory. He understands that so much was going on in the 1960s that the outside forces hammered on the Johnson presidency until, in 1968, he announced he would not seek reelection. “The Great Society” could have worked better as a one-man show with a beaten down Johnson railing and reflecting about the end of his long political career.

“The Great Society” runs through March 11 at Arena Stage.

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