Cleveland Play House’s ‘All the Way’ riveting Elizabethan drama
By Bob Abelman
Richard II. Edward III. Henry VIII. LBJ.
These famous figures from another time – with their larger-than-life personalities, excessive appetites, unfillable holes in their egos and Rabelaisian crudity – are the focus of historical dramas that offer insight and perspective on the turbulent and heroic past.
And while “All the Way” is a 2014 Tony Award-winning drama that chronicles the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s accidental presidency in 1964, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s play is no less epic in scope, no less Elizabethan in style and no less theatrical than the works penned by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
And it is no less enthralling.
The play at Cleveland Play House under Giovanna Sardelli’s superb direction, opens just after the assassination of JFK. It explores LBJ’s (Steve Vinovich) efforts to maneuver members of Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and support his candidacy for the upcoming election.
This is done through backroom deals with assorted southern senators (Stephen Bradbury and Timothy Crowe), showdowns with Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Greg Jackson) and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (William Parry), and the strategic manipulation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Jason Bowen) and his advisers and NAACP colleagues (Biko Eisen-Martin, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jeffrey Grover, Joshua David Robinson and Charles E. Wallace).
And because historical dramas are nothing without the vantage point of a fortunate fly on the wall behind closed doors, we get to witness LBJ’s love for Lady Bird (Laura Starnik), his tumultuous relationship with liberal senator Hubert Humphrey (Donald Carrier), and the undying support offered by his aide, Walter Jenkins (Chris Richards).
As such, we get to see all sides of LBJ – the intimidating and savvy politician, the tortured soul, the man-child – all of which are mastered by Vinovich in a true tour-de-force performance. Vinovich captures the spectacle of the time and the awe-inspiring power in the man. And, unlike the Broadway production of “All the Way,” this is done without prosthetics to help capture LBJ’s character-defining facial features.
Of course, realism is not an appropriate marker for judgment in historical dramas like “Richard II” and “Edward III,” which were written 200 to 300 years after the fact. And even though many audience members have memories that date back to the 1960s, imitation is significantly less important in “All the Way” than capturing the essence of the time and the people who populated it.
In this regard, this CPH production nails it. David Kay Mickelsen’s period costuming helps, but the entire ensemble conveys their characters interestingly and absorbingly, all the while delivering often wordy, narrative-driving, fact-filled lines in the quick, direct and stylized manner required of historical dramas.
The thing is, historical facts and figures rarely lend themselves to interesting theatrical representation. While Shakespeare and Marlowe necessarily infused their work with heightened language stuffed with gorgeous rhetoric, witty word-play and lyrical poetry, “All the Way” embraces LBJ’s penchant for homey adages, Texas slang and profane storytelling.
It also employs spectacular projections to help establish a sense of time and place and to move along the storytelling. Where the Broadway production offered these images behind the actors, Dan Scully’s vivid projections appear on the surrounding curved walls of Robert Mark Morgan’s gorgeous oval office facsimile in this CPH production. The office doubles as all other locations as well, courtesy of Michael Lincoln’s isolating lighting and director Sardelli’s clever staging.
One of the most clever and dramatic examples is when LBJ and others are lamenting the escalation of the Vietnam war in the background while, in shadow inches from the audience, FBI agents dig, discover and remove from the ground the body of James Chaney – one of the three young civil rights workers who were murdered by local police in Neshoba County, Miss.
This moment can’t help but call to mind the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene in “Hamlet,” where another frustrated leader faces mortality by an open grave.
But, more significantly, this moment and others throughout the play remind us that many of the issues and injustices faced by LBJ in the 1960s – the civil unrest, the white police killing black men, the dirty politics and the deplorable politicians – are identical to those we face today.
Like every Elizabethan historical drama that came before it, “All the Way” reminds us that the more things change the more they remain the same. CV
“All the Way”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 9
TICKETS & INFO: $25-$100, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 24, 2016.
Lead image: Steve Vinovich, center, as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and members of the ensemble of “All the Way.” Photo | Roger Mastroianni