One of the best plays I have ever seen, “All the Way” reveals cunning political strategy at a pivotal time in our nation’s history.
Vividly brought to life by a superb company — a cast of 19 portrays more than 40 distinct characters — and shrewdly directed by Steven Woolf, this riveting, extraordinary historical drama opens the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s 49th season.
Playwright Robert Schenkkan has illustrated a remarkable watershed period in America — 11 months of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “accidental” presidency, from JFK’s assassination Nov. 22, 1963, to his landslide victory in 1964.
Woolf’s fluid staging leads us through an engrossing first act, which focuses on the struggles to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and an incendiary second act, which concentrates on LBJ’s election campaign and the fallout from supporting equality.
A colorful, imposing Texan prone to salty expressions and a master at legislative maneuvering, LBJ’s has a story that recalls epic Shakespeare.
Brian Dykstra, memorable as Mark Rothko in “Red” four years ago, returns as the towering powerful politician, and he masterfully captures LBJ’s wheeling and dealing. He is on stage for nearly all three hours, much of the dialogue taking place during phone conversations and interactions with major historical figures in the Oval Office.
Watching Johnson manipulate legislators and vent to his closest advisors while not flinching as a civil rights advocate is a rich, compelling experience.
While not mimicking their real characters, the veteran supporting players deftly project the personalities and motives, and they are on point in intriguing vignettes.
Avery Glymph stands out as a wary Martin Luther King, never wavering on his intentions, as does Kurt Zischke as the decent Hubert Humphrey, tirelessly working to push through legislation and hoping to gain LBJ’s favor.
So does Michael James Reed, smooth as LBJ’s trusted right-hand man Walter Jenkins, and Robert Vincent Smith as a cagey J. Edgar Hoover. Gary Wayne Barker is convincing as egocentric Illinois senator Everett Dirksen and potent Dixiecrat Howard “Judge” Smith.
Southern segregationists holding firm include LBJ’s former mentor Richard “Uncle Dick” Russell (Anderson Matthews), slick Strom Thurmond (Stephen D’Ambrose), and the contemptible George Wallace (Jon Shaver).
Impressive as civil rights leaders are Ron Himes as Ralph Abernathy, Richard Prioleau as Stokely Carmichael, J. Samuel Davis as Roy Wilkins and J. Cameron Barnett as Bob Moses.
Bernadette Quigley excels as a dutiful Lady Bird Johnson while Myxolydia Tyler is memorable as both Coretta Scott King and hate crime victim Fannie Lou Hamer.
The production is enhanced with impeccable technical elements – James Kronzer’s striking, efficient scenic design; Ron Denton’s astute lighting; Fitz Patton’s crisp sound, and Dorothy Marshall Englis’ effective period costumes.
Of special note is the projection design by Matthew Young, utilizing news footage and newspaper clippings to emphasize events.
The influence of Johnson’s administration and his visionary outlook to change the country is felt today. The lessons of how to achieve action could be heeded in the partisan gridlock marking the current political climate.
“All the Way” sheds light on the ideals of a Great Society, which may be a distant memory, but can inspire Americans about the possibilities of our democracy.
For intelligent, thought-provoking and fascinating theater, make seeing “All the Way” a priority.
At a glace
What: “All the Way”
When: Now through Oct. 4
Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Where: Browning Mainstage, Loretto Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
Tickets: 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org