Historical drama seizes a slice of the past and puts it up on stage so that an audience can live with it in real, moment-to-moment segments of time. Shakespeare did this in spades with his Henry the Fifth urging his audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…think when we talk of horses, that you see them…’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” Such plays can be thrilling, utterly absorbing and instructive. Count All the Way by playwright Robert Schenkkan among the very best of such plays.
All the Way is the story of one of the most politically eventful years in American history—November 1963 to November 1964—starting with the assassination of a great, young president. Hastily sworn in as president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (spot on Hugo Armstrong in a titanic performance) picked up Kennedy’s torch and got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed over the strenuous opposition of Southern politicians dedicated to the status quo. Violence against civil rights protestors was rampant. People were beaten or killed trying to register voters in Mississippi, and there was an election on with Johnson seeking to win the presidency in his own right, challenged by the wild-card governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), who brazenly declared, “…segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican frontrunner and eventual nominee, was regarded as a dangerous ideologue. Led by the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Larry Bates), Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Rosney Mauger) and others, the pressure from those in the Civil Rights movement was relentless. And an incident in the waters off the coast of Southeast Asia led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which in turn led to the escalation of the Viet Nam War.
Under the keen direction of Marc Masterson, the excellent cast of eighteen actors takes on more than sixty historical figures including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), Sen. Hubert Humphrey (JD Cullum), Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas), Coretta Scott King (Tracey A. Leigh) and Johnson’s powerful mentor and civil rights foe, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (Larry John Meyers). Playwright Schenkkan fleshes out the era by including the non-speaking roles of a Barber (Bo Foxworth), a Tailor (Matthew Arkin) and a Shoe Shiner (Gregg Daniel). These actors also play numerous other named characters, as do Jordan Bellow, Lynn Gallagher, Hal Landon, Jr., William Francis McGuire and Darin Singleton.
The set, designed by Ralph Funicello and lit by Jaymi Lee Smith, lends a certain grandeur and gravitas to the action with its stark-white, semicircular double colonnades and matching upper gallery, which handsomely serves as the Oval Office and other locales. Projections designed by Shawn Sagady (recreated by Kristin Ellert) exemplify the various locations. Charles Coes’ sound design (with original music Nathan A. Roberts) transparently supports the action. Costumes by Holly Poe Durban are solidly representative of the early 1960s.
The play, sweeping in scope, has a gripping trajectory that is utterly absorbing, building in power as the story sweeps into the contentious Democratic convention of 1964, then rockets toward the November election in which Johnson is affirmed president in a land slide. For many, this will be new information. For those who lived through the times at whatever age, it is a thrill to witness this emotionally powerful recreation.
All the Way runs through October 2 on South Coast Rep’s Segerstrom Stage in Costa Mesa.