‘The Great Society’ speaks powerfully to today through the politics of yesterday

Cecil Washington Jr., left, and Steve Vinovich portray Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson in "The Great Society" at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

Cecil Washington Jr., left, and Steve Vinovich portray Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson in “The Great Society” at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

The current political climate in the United States is tense, perhaps the worst it’s been in recent memory, but Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society,” playing through March 5 at Zach Theatre, reminds us that our country’s political history has seen many periods of great regression.

“The Great Society” is the second play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson written by Schenkkan, following his earlier “All the Way,” which won the 2014 Tony Award for best play and was made even more famous by Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning portrayal of LBJ in the show’s Broadway run (later adapted into an HBO original film). Zach Theatre produced the Texas premiere of “All the Way” in 2015 and now presents the Texas premiere of “The Great Society” with the same key creative team of director Dave Steakley and powerhouse actor Steve Vinovich as LBJ.

In “The Great Society,” Schenkkan covers a great deal of ground, from LBJ’s re-election in 1964 through his decision not to run for another term — and the subsequent victory of Richard Nixon — in 1968. As a result, the play is quite long and does tend to meander some, veering between a character study of Johnson, a taut political thriller about the confluence of Johnson’s progressive domestic politics and his increasingly hawkish stance on Vietnam, and a look at the split in the civil rights movement between the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of the more militant Black Power movement.

Not all these threads come together in a satisfying conclusion, but “The Great Society” is less about story structure than about revealing the tragic downfall of LBJ’s policies and the movement from “All the way with LBJ!” to “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It’s in the dramatic re-creation of these historical and political events where Schenkkan’s writing shines as he crafts potent drama out of the many compromises that LBJ makes and the lies he tells in order to get his policies through, slowly betraying many of his most fervent allies and becoming increasingly paranoid about whom he can trust.

The tension of these moments would be impossible without the tour de force performance given by Vinovich, whose LBJ charms as much as he dismays, drawing as much sympathy and approbation as he does criticism. A large, top-notch ensemble, in an assortment of roles, provides varying degrees of counterbalance to the larger-than-life Southernism of Vinovich’s LBJ.

Of special note here is Cecil Washington Jr., who portrays civil rights icon King with strength, dignity and lyricism while simultaneously portraying a vulnerability that lets us see into the far-from-flawless man at the heart of the icon.

It should come as no surprise that “The Great Society” has particular resonance to contemporary politics, and the final scene (which does feel a bit tacked on) directly tackles this issue, pulling the audience right into current day fears of corruption and autocracy following in the footsteps of a noble attempt at progressivism. This is not an uplifting play, but it is a necessary one, and it is a vital study for all those who wish to learn from the past in order to gain some idea of what we might do in the present.

“The Great Society”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.

Cost: $29-$94

Info: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

 

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