All The Way With LBJ

Uneven but fascinating All the Way delves into what made Lyndon Johnson tick

Uneven but fascinating All The Way delves into what made LBJ tick

Brandon Potter in All The Way
Brandon Potter as President Lyndon Baines Johnson Photo by Karen Almond
All the Way, Alley/DTC production
LBJ and MLK (Shawn Hamilton) make a deal.  Photo by Karen Almond
All the Way, Alley/DTC production
The Alley Theatre and Dallas Theater Center companies go All the Way together. Photo by Karen Almond
All the Way, Alley/DTC production
One of the few moments of happiness between LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson (Leah Spillman) in All the Way Photo by Karen Almond
Brandon Potter in All The Way
All the Way, Alley/DTC production
All the Way, Alley/DTC production
All the Way, Alley/DTC production

When viewing the new, Texas-centric production of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, and its depiction of the first year of the Johnson administration, it seems obligatory to muse on the infamous Otto von Bismarck attributed quote about the similarity of making laws and making sausages. Neither is a pretty process to gaze upon, but when dramatized by a talented writer, lawmaking, at least, can make for great spectacle.

While All the Way is not a pretty play, and the giant cast is indeed something of a sausage fest, together in the hands of director Kevin Moriarty they turn the minutia of filibusters, cloture and Senate committee rules, along with a great deal of figurative back-stabbing, into high drama.

The gunshot that made LBJ the “accidental” president is almost the first sound of the play and it sets the frantic and occasional violent pace that speeds us through his first hours in office to his winning of the 1964 election. 

Immediately, the audience is hit with a barrage of names and faces as Johnson attempts to establish himself as president while making a place for himself in history pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through a hostile Congress. Even scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s set, filled with large and looming Corinthian columns, emphasizes the theme that history is both being made and watching.

The action swirls around LBJ (Brandon Potter) almost the entirety of the nearly three-hour play. He should be the dynamic center of that hurricane of plots and characters, but at times Potter seems overwhelmed in it all, not just as the character is torn in many directions, but because the actor perhaps hasn’t gotten all the way into LBJ. And this might be where we need a little back story not just on the congressional but production players as well.

While the backstage drama shouldn’t usually be fodder for an evaluation of the onstage performance, All the Way’s both strengths and weaknesses might arise from this production’s history. After the play won the Tony for outstanding drama in 2014, it was no surprise that two of the state’s most renowned regional theater companies, the Alley Theatre and Dallas Theater Center would want to come together to make All the Way a collaborative production.

With DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty helming and the Alley’s James Black set to star as LBJ, it looked to be a good balance between each city’s theatrical community. Moriarty does integrate the cast well. There’s no acting Team Dallas/Team Houston distinctions to be seen.

However, at some point, likely late in the rehearsal process, Brandon Potter took over the role of LBJ as James Black bowed out for medical treatment. Black is said to be making a full recovery, but Potter — originally cast to play multiple parts including George Wallace and the King of Norway — seems to still be searching for his inner president.

While Potter can put on the charm when addressing the audience in several asides, in the performance I saw he hasn’t yet achieved a menacing presence in those scenes that call for pure Johnsonian power and cunning. There’s not a high sense of danger when he threatens.

Still there is much to enjoy, or at least think upon, as we're caught within the political maelstrom. Petty men rise to moments of greatness and great men dissolve into long bouts of pettiness. With most of the cast playing multiple characters, they all get to play a wide-range of humanity, which is both intriguing and occasionally confusing. Without having lived through the era or majored in 20th century American history, some of the fast-talking deal-making becomes difficult to follow.

The best moments in the show come when this LBJ play turns into an MLK play. Shawn Hamilton as Martin Luther King Jr. is radiant, literally, as a spotlight shines upon him when he makes his first entrance. That light is rather overkill; Hamilton certainly doesn’t need it. America has made King into its patron saint of our (often unrealized) potential for good, but all true saints were once real human beings wrestling with temptation, and both playwright and actor give MLK, the man, those inner dimensions.

Hamilton’s usual scene-mates (David Rainey, Hasssan El-Amin, Adam A. Anderson and Michelle Elaine) also get to shine, as Moriarty allows almost all the King strategy meetings to slow down the play in a very good way, not the least of which because it’s nice to savor what the characters are actually saying. (John Tyson’s slow southern drawl as Sen. Richard Russell is also another standout who makes the racing dialog comprehensible.)

As a LBJ first-year presidential portrait, this Texas All the Way isn’t quite all in, but as a peek into the sausage-making, the production fascinates. Even without that history major, we know generally how this all will end, so in the end, it’s the individual minutes of human drama on their way to becoming history, and still reverberating into our present, that make this theatrical journey worth the while. 

All the Way runs until February 21 at the Alley Theatre.