“All the Way” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Electrifying! That’s what “All the Way” is, simply electrifying. It’s all about Lyndon Johnson in his early years as President. He’s shown as a whirling dervish with a will of iron. a man of enormous compassion for underdogs and a political manipulator and bully capable of almost anything to gain the oppressed their rights.

His language is laced with words and concepts no gentleman would express, but he uses them to his advantage at every opportunity. Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan captures the essence and greatness of the man and the difficulty of his times in this finely polished work where there’s not a word too many or a word too few. And Jack Willis, despite the fact that he doesn’t look like Johnson, is so convincing in his portrayal of the man, in his speech and body language that it’s as if LBJ had been reincarnated.

Schenkkan’s script, Bill Rauch’s direction, Jack Willis’s portrayal, and the entire cast (many of whom were in the original production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland where the play originated) make this a must-see event. The play won a Tony in its Broadway run, where President Obama saw it.

Think of President Obama watching Johnson face a Congress determined to thwart his programs. What must he have thought as on stage the ’60s Senators and Representatives of the South railed against the Civil Rights Act and other Johnson legislation, calling it unconstitutional, referencing “the values of our nation” in their efforts to block any legislation that sought equality for all Americans? What must Obama have thought as he saw the actors portraying legislators sitting in a Congressional meeting room that had a sign on the wall “White Members Only”?

As Johnson sought to prevail, so too did Martin Luther King. Schenkkan makes sure we see the battles he had to fight within his own organization. A number of the Civil Rights leaders did not embrace King’s peaceful strategies. Meanwhile J. Edgar Hoover hovers in the background doing his dirty work. What a lesson this play is in the art and slipperiness of politics.

Within this remarkable play we have the portrayal of a giant of a man. Johnson combines the compassion of Mother Theresa with the gamesmanship of Machiavelli. Oh he was a Man! And this play celebrates all aspects of his greatness before the Vietnam debacle.

But it is so much more than a testimony to Johnson’s greatness. Equally valuable are insights into the wrangling of the 1960s: within the Civil Rights Movement, within Congress, between Congress and the President. We gain insights into the difficulties of arriving at compromises. We are reminded that effective democratic governments require much of their leaders, just as they require attention and oversight by the public. Neither are easy to achieve.

This is part one of Schenkkan’s Johnson epic. Part two, “The Great Society” opens on Dec. 5. Both plays will be offered in repertory from Dec. 5 to Jan. 4. This is a gift for anyone interested in the origins of our current political landscape, interested in the early ’60s or the civil rights battles that have shaped our nation, and especially for anyone who loves theatre.

Through Jan. 4, 2015, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

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