LBJ and MLK post-JFK in ‘All the Way’

0
Adams Visual Communications

Boulder boasts some outstanding theater. Led by stalwarts like the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company (BETC) and BDT Stage, the Boulder theater scene is both varied and vibrant. As with dining and art, however, anyone who chooses to hew exclusively to Boulder, to never cross the county line and venture beyond “The Bubble,” is guaranteed to miss out on some amazing cultural offerings.

For decades, the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) has brought compelling, challenging and wildly entertaining productions to the stage. From its annual Shakespeare and Christmas shows to boisterous comedies and thought-provoking dramas, the DCTC brings together driven directors, gifted actors and talented production teams, and the results exceed expectations virtually every time.

Director Anthony Powell’s production of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way is another DCTC success writ large. It never hurts to start with solid source material. Along with the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Drama League Award, All the Way won the Tony Award for best play in 2014.

With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy fresh in the nation’s mind and weighing heavily on its heart, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (C. David Johnson) became an “accidental President.” It was 1963.

LBJ, a career politician from Texas, made it a priority to pass equal rights legislation aimed at closing the racial divide in America. Working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Terence Archie) and Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (James Newcomb) against racial equality opponents like Senator Richard Russell (Philip Pleasants), Senator Strom Thurmond (Newcomb, again) and Representative Howard “Judge” Smith (Mike Hartman), LBJ succeeded in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

A taut, often blistering, live wire of a play, All the Way dramatizes this period in American history, but its focus remains always and clearly on President Johnson. It is as much or more a paean to LBJ as it is a live-action history lesson or social commentary.
In point of fact, its uncritical idolization of LBJ is the only way in which I felt All the Way missed an opportunity at true greatness. (Well, that and the fact that it’s a full two hours and forty-five ass-numbing minutes long — not including intermission.) The LBJ of the play — just like the actual LBJ — uses every iteration of the racial epithet, “nigger.” In real life, LBJ voted against racial equality measures his entire political career until the late 1950s, and it wasn’t until he assumed the presidency that he became a champion of equal rights.

Did this reflect a profound philosophical awakening? Was it, instead, merely a crass, egotistical bid for political immortality? All the Way doesn’t even ask those questions. If it did, it might ascend from good to great.

That said, All the Way is a very good play, and the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production more than does it justice. Given Schenkkan’s lionization of LBJ, everything hinges on that performance. In his Denver Center debut, C. David Johnson delivers a riveting portrayal. Commanding, acerbic, cunning and, at times, full of self-doubt, Johnson the actor plays Johnson the president expertly.

His character credibility is matched by Terence Archie as MLK. Archie succeeds in evoking King’s most well-known physical and verbal mannerisms without ever even approaching impersonation or caricature. The supporting cast, filled with DCTC regulars, play their parts well.

The set, reminiscent of the Ultimate Fighting Champion’s octagon, is a study in circles, an excellent design choice given LBJ’s frequent allusions to politics as combat. Scenic Designer Robert Mark Morgan, whose past work on DCTC productions like The Giver, Jesus Hates Me and Copenhagen impressed me, does so again with his use of sweeping lines, video screens and mechanized elements that appear and disappear with fluid regularity.

David Kay Mickelsen has designed the costumes for more than four dozen DCTC productions over the past 20 seasons, and his work here is flawless. From the politicians’ pinstriped suits to Lady Bird’s pearls, Mickelsen’s costumes evoke the era.
All the Way provides a vivid glimpse into a pivotal moment in American history. It has much to offer, and Johnson’s turn as LBJ alone is worth the price of admission.

On the Bill: All the Way, through February 28, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th Street, Denver, www.denvercenter.org, $32 and up.