“The Great Society” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Stunning! Heartbreaking! Infuriating! Incredibly good theatre! We have here part two of Robert Schenkaan’s brilliant analysis of the last years of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s triumphant yet tragic political career. I defy you to be unmoved.

These were the years of Johnson’s Great Society, years when he forced through Congress legislation designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Bills to improve education, health care, and transportation were enacted. LBJ was a hero and a visionary with political balls of steel. But unfortunately Vietnam was exploding, and with it Johnson’s popularity. Jack Willis as LBJ captures the essence of the man, his down-home humor, his will of iron, his shrewd understanding of politics, and his lamentable fall from grace.

This play, gloriously staged by director Bill Rauch, is a better course in political science than any textbook I’ve ever read. If you want to know exactly what it takes to get a bill passed in Congress, here you’ll see how it’s done. There are the bribes, the threats, the power plays, the manipulations, the strange bedfellows and the genius to get it accomplished.

Johnson’s battles were not only with a recalcitrant Congress and his political enemies. The play sensitively portrays his fraught encounters with civil rights leaders, especially Martin Luther King. He could never move swiftly or powerfully enough for King. Meanwhile King faced his own political problems. The black power contingent viewed non-violence as an unacceptably feeble response to the unlawful and deadly behavior of police in both the south and the north. You’ll cringe at the portrayal of those encounters, just as you’ll recoil from the portrayal of the debacle in Vietnam.

Powerful audio-visual effects bring back the agonies of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War at home and on the front. Large-scale images flash behind the actors as the theatre reverberates with their sounds.

The acting is, for the most part, stunning. Jack Willis provides an awe-inspiring, larger than life performance as Johnson. Most of the other actors play a number of characters and manage to give each one of them the personality that history tells us was theirs. One good example of this is Jonathan Haugen whose George Wallace is the quintessential bigot just as his Richard Nixon exudes smarminess.

If you can get tickets, take your teenagers with you to this. It’s a lesson in American history and an example of magnificent theatre you and they won’t soon forget.

Through Jan. 4 playing in repertory with “All the Way”, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

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