From tragedy to triumph, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s trajectory from “accident president” following JFK’s assassination in 1963 to his landslide election in 1964 is a legacy of politics and power that feels contemporary and fresh today.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,” Tony winner for Best Play in 2014, offers a fascinating portrait of the larger-than-life personality of our 36th President at a pivotal time in our nation.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will open its 49th season with the play, one of the first regional theater companies to produce it since the Broadway run ended in June 2014.
The complexities of the big, tall Texan as a cunning legislator and civil rights advocate is what intrigued both director Steve Woolf and actor Brian Dykstra to tackle this challenge.
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The popular misconception is that it is a one-man show, for Bryan Cranston received considerable focus and won the Tony Award for Best Actor. But the play actually weaves 40 characters – portrayed by 19 actors – into this account, as it delves into the maneuvering to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert McNamara, George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey and Lady Bird Johnson are part of this broad landscape.
“It’s a huge ensemble. But it’s a very personal story. LBJ wanted to change the country,” Woolf said, as he finished a run-through of Act II recently. He maintained charts and graphs to detail every scene and when every character is on stage.
“It’s a lot of work with this many characters. We needed a set design (by James Kronzer), where we could have flow,” he said.
When Woolf, longtime artistic director at The Rep, read the play two years earlier, he was captivated by the pace and the intelligence of the script, a series of vignettes that take place during 11 crucial months.
“It’s an epic story. It has a lot of drama, literally. The stakes are huge,” he said. “You know the names of the people. It’s not dry history. Theatrically, it’s great fun.”
The primary focus is the maneuvering to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and LBJ’s ruthless intentions on serving a full term in the Oval Office.
Woolf, who visited the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, during his preparation for the show, said he was struck by how much LBJ loved phones.
“He was a politician’s politician. All the cajoling, arm-twisting – he got things done. His rise to power is really astounding. He changed the country, and we’re still feeling the effects. His handprint is on everything today – Medicare, equal rights, Voting Rights Act, cultural, social security. But he’s hated for being the Vietnam president,” he said.
Dykstra was 3 years old when LBJ left office, and was intrigued by playing a man from the same generation as his father.
“Those men in the 1960s, their emotional availability wasn’t there. LBJ didn’t apologize. He fought weakness and showing emotion,” he said. “But he wanted people to love him.”
Johnson felt an urgency to accomplish important legislation because he was deeply afraid of dying young, Dykstra said. He had a massive heart attack in 1955, and his father had died at age 60.
“He felt that he had to move as fast as he could,” Dykstra said.
What drove him was he thought he could do some good. He deeply believed in equality,” Woolf said. “From the get-go, there is a moral center. If he fails, he’s done. It could have easily gone sideways.”
His political career may be controversial, but LBJ was a master manipulator.
“He had the mindset where the ends justified the means, anything to win,” Dykstra said.
To cast the show, Woolf said he sought performers who could embody the roles, not necessarily duplicate their look. “I wanted people who could capture the essence of the characters, who could bring depth.”
For instance, Avery Glymph, who plays Martin Luther King Jr., doesn’t look like the iconic figure. “But he has his vocal cadences, and is evolving into the character. It’s pretty neat to watch.”
Dykstra said while looking at photos of the physically imposing 6-foot-4 Texan, he could picture his transformation.
“Steve said we were not doing the Rich Little version,” he said, smiling.
He concentrated on representing the LBJ’s Southern character, and was helped by a dialect coach to perfect the accent. How LBJ could command a room was significant, he said.
Dykstra appeared as art titan Mark Rothko in The Rep’s 2011 season opener, “Red,” and worked on Broadway with Tom Hanks in the late Nora Ephron’s 2013 “Lucky Guy.” A New York-based actor with an extensive resume, he is equally at home playing Shakespearean figures or contemporary parts.
“I love working with Steve. I like the space, the wraparound theater. You feel like a rock star,” he said.
The play’s tagline is: “It’s not personal, it’s politics,” and Woolf hopes it will spark interesting discussions.
“It is powerful stuff, a remarkable story of really interesting, compelling and fascinating people. It reminds us how big this was. Hanging his political career on civil rights, it was the first time that LBJ could see himself having real influence,” he said.
At a glance
What: “All the Way”
When: Friday through Oct. 4
Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Where: Browning Mainstage, Loretto Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, Mo.
Tickets: 314-968-4925, www.repstl.org