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Ashland Review: The Great Society

Oregon Shakespeare Festival


by Dorothy Velasco

for broadcast on KLCC, Aug. 12, 2014

The presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson is a topic Shakespeare would have seized upon. The tragic complexity of the man and the historical scope of the times would have been irresistible.

They still are, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the ideal home for developing and premiering Robert Schenkkan’s two masterworks about our 36th president, “All the Way” in 2012 and now “The Great Society.”

The plays were commissioned and coproduced by Seattle Repertory Theatre, which will present both of them in rep this fall with the Festival cast. On some days audience members with great stamina can watch both three-hour plays in a single day.

The person requiring the greatest stamina, however, is Jack Willis, the riveting actor who brings LBJ to glorious life. He rarely leaves the stage, and he drives every scene with the tireless aggression of someone who knows he’s right but has much to lose.

He shows a softer side whenever he steps out of the action to tell a mesmerizing story in that deep Texas drawl. And then we delight in seeing him, like a snake charmer, manipulate adversaries such as George Wallace and Everett Dirksen.

“The Great Society,” impeccably directed by Bill Rauch for maximum clarity and theatrical impact, is entirely Willis’s play. He is a giant presence, but sixteen other talented actors perform multiple roles with great skill. Notable are Kenajuan Bentley as Martin Luther King, Denis Arndt as Richard Daley, Jonathan Haugen as George Wallace, Danforth Comins as Bobby Kennedy and Mark Murphey as Robert McNamara.

Schenkkan’s beautifully crafted script takes us through the major events of Johnson’s presidency, focussing primarily on the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Johnson grandly envisions his great society as a democracy that would truly provide equal rights and permanently lift the poorest out of poverty. That dream slips through his fingers as the Vietnam War escalates in spite of his best instincts.

During the play’s three acts, Christopher Acebo’s brilliant set gradually falls apart, reflecting Johnson’s own condition as he loses control of Congress and suffers the growing hatred of his people.

“The Great Society” is a tragedy, and for those of us who lived through Johnson’s time, it fills us with pathos. After all, we have the gift of hindsight in remembering our own pain. But at the same time, it’s the funniest tragedy you’ll ever see. That crass, big-hearted bull of a man had a sense of humor abounding with irony.

This is Dorothy Velasco with KLCC’s Ashland Review.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.
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