Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's report on the 2018 Helen Hayes Awards Nominations
Schenkkan wrote The Great Society, which covers Johnson and his presidency from January 1965 to December 1968, as a follow-up to his earlier play All the Way, which began immediately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and concluded with Johnson's electoral victory in November 1964. Arena notes that the work was originally in three acts and the playwright condensed it into the current two; perhaps an expansion would have been better. Johnson's story has enough internal and external drama to merit a trilogy.
Director Kyle Donnelly, who staged the earlier play for Arena, returnsalong with most of the previous cast members, some in different rolesand keeps the action pulsing, assisted at several points by fight director Joe Isenberg. The action includes the assault on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and anti-war protests outside the White House, all enhanced with Aaron Rhyne's projections of historic news coverage.
As written by Schenkkan and embodied by Jack Willis, Johnson is the sun around whom the other characters orbit. A deal maker and arm-twister, he wants to be remembered for his domestic agenda (including Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act) but sees his legacy subsumed by his inability to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.
Aside from Willis, the most notable performances come from Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Lawrence Redmond as Vice President Hubert Humphrey; John Scherer as an impassioned Senator Robert Kennedy; Richmond Hoxie as a stolid, hunched J. Edgar Hoover; and Tom Wiggin as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who sees the problems with staying in Vietnam but doesn't want to be responsible for the U.S. losing a war.
The arena staging in the Fichandler allows set designer Kate Edmunds to move set pieces, primarily the presidential desk, in and out to create changing perspectives. Nancy Schertler's lighting design and David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design add to the immediacy of the staging and bring the audience into the action.