Presented by A.R.T.
By Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Bill Rauch
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge) Too often, biographies of American presidents are stories wrought with blind patriotism. Director Bill Rauch, however, has not shaped a play about patriotism but politics. Politics and morality may occupy the same place once in a while, but in Robert Schenkkan’s complex and vividly realized All the Way, ambition dilutes ideals quickly.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Bryan Cranston from television’s Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle) is allies with every politician that will be kind enough to help him on his way. That doesn’t mean, however, he won’t hesitate to throw his friends under the bus if it suits his goals. Cranston’s Johnson is at turns gleeful and hard, a man who depends on contradictions to keep the administration he inherited running smoothly. The rest of America is shaken to its core by social upheaval, but as long as Johnson can ferry it to the other side of this age of change, he believes everything will be fine.
Cranston’s energy is unmatched. His depiction of the 36th president is vain, two-faced, and occasionally honorable. He never resorts to caricature, fluctuating between clown and frustrated political force.
Brandon J. Dirden is Martin Luther King, Jr., fighting to end segregation and be taken seriously. Dixiecrats scoff at the peaceful reverend but quietly fear that his victories mean the conservative days of the Democrat party have reached an end. Even Johnson has difficulty prioritizing King’s agenda, at first. A born and bred Texan, Johnson is used to pleasing his fellow, traditional, often bigoted Democrats, even as they surge headlong to become a very different political force.
The struggles of King and fellow African American leaders Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez), Frannie Lou Hamer (Crystal A. Dickinson), and Bob Moses (Eric Lenox Abrams) provide some of the most moving drama in the play. Their stories run parallel to the power LBJ struggles to maintain, but their efforts feel more human.
Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean from films like Best in Show and Clue) is busy harassing and spying on activists. His zeal for “gathering intelligence” and relentless devotion to his work casts a grim shadow over the era. Cranston’s president doesn’t appear to trust him very much but hesitates to rid his administration of the FBI director. McKean is great fun on stage as the famously paranoid, polarizing figure.
All the Way, in scope and ambition, is grand. It paints a wide-ranging picture of American political life during Johnson’s shaky entry into office. It runs long, but in some ways, there’s no way it can’t. There’s a lot of ground to cover, some of which echoes the contemporary social landscape in a disturbing manner.
All eyes are on Johnson throughout the play, best symbolized by the perpetually full gallery seats around the stage. Even when his fellow politicians aren’t actually in the scene, they’re still gazing at Cranston’s LBJ, waiting for him to drop the ball or mess up in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. His character may not always be admirable, but All the Way gives us a Lyndon B. Johnson who can hold his own in the eye of the hurricane.