Like hell, The Great Society is paved with good intentions, but it has more layers than Dante imagined. They mesh not in a Miltonian epic but rather in a Cliff Notes summary of what Robert Schenkkan seems to have meant to be a modern Greek-ish tragedy. Structurally, it works as a narrative panorama of problems — mainly a hellish war-- that bring down the presidency and personal status of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Of all the programs LBJ’s plan of social reforms launched, some important ones that have lasted -- like the National Foundations of the Arts and the Humanities, Clean Air Act, Head Start, HUD, and Public Broadcasting Services (PBS, NPR) — get little attention. The thrusts that take over are the Civil Rights Act — bolstered by Voting Rights — and the War on Poverty, with Medicare and Medicaid frequently mentioned.
Major scenes involve LBJ with Martin Luther King (strongly portrayed by A. K. Murtadaha) and his backers who have issues with both Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daly (The Boss embodied by Norm Boucher) and Student Rebelions led by Stokely Carmichael (interpreted by Ian Fermy as a meanie always popping up). Additionally, both the Selma March and Chicago riots get repetitious treatment but, being broken up by other problematic episodes, lose effectiveness. Showing police brutality in both instances doesn’t finally go anywhere as a separate important issue.
Eugene McCarthy merits only a few comments but Bobby Kennedy with his concern about the Viet Nam war and people in poverty is clearly the biggest political threat to LBJ from their first clashes in the White House. Kennedy comes over realistically via the performance of Brett Mack, whose age, appearance, manner, and voice are more like the real thing than any other in the large cast. David Breitbarth almost satisfies in this respect as George Wallace, particularly in his gestures and accent.
Matt DeCaro deserves accolades for his sustained power as the President, a role taken over recently when a different designated actor left precipitously. DeCaro captures the gumption and finally discouraged regrets of LBJ but never his physical look. That’s true of many of the actors but almost weird in Eric Hissom’s appearance as a flip, young — if gray-haired — Everett Dirkson with an odd accent but not Dirkson’s odd accent or often flamboyant manner. I personally did not recognize Tom Coiner as Hubert Humphrey until his third appearance when his name was mentioned, though he conveys Humphrey’s attitudes well enough.
There are quite minor roles for women. Denise Cormier as Lady Bird Johnson is obviously meant to humanize LBJ as they warm up to each other in private. Taylar [sic] stands out as a look-alike Coretta Scott King and for her care for her husband and problems in the Civil Rights Movement. As Lynda Byrd Johnson, Danielle Renella has a laughable moment introducing her Marine fiance to her father. (Renella is about half the size of the famously tall daughter of LBJ.) I guess this little scene is supposed to indicate the family’s personal stake in the military during the Viet Nam war.
Does history repeat itself? Certainly parallels between what happened in LBJ’s time and events and attitudes today may be drawn. Projected dates and descriptions of what happened on them —especially totaling of deaths and the wounded in Nam — are suggestive. What dates might be projected today? Will there be political downfalls? What of the terrorism so little mentioned in the play or of the barely noted assassinations?
The technical work realized at Asolo Rep is complex. The stage often seems crowded, though, and some of the appearances of armed men in the audience may frighten. Costumes look right. (I don’t have the expertise to judge the military ones.) So much is packed into a bit over three hours that it’s hard to separate fact and fiction — and what is the point of each in this over-long drama and performance.
Two ten-minute intermissions seemed to be welcomed by the audience. Director Nicole A. Watson: Please note this.