We arrived in Ashland yesterday after driving through a tour of fire trucks and fire helicopters on I-5. The first play on the menu was Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society.
I have been a fan of Schenkkan since seeing both nights of The Kentucky Cycle at Zeitgeist Stage Company and Way Theatre Artists in Boston in 2007.
We saw All the Way here two years ago and I was blown away: I went in expecting something a bit dry and difficult to follow, and found a play that was epic, funny, tragic, and well-referenced.
Years ago I was in Austin and visited the LBJ museum as a respite from the heat. I was surprised by the evenhandedness with which the museum treated the controversies Johnson’s time in office. Similarly, Shenkkan clearly loves LBJ, but writes about him (in both plays), as Jack Willis performs him, warts (and lies and machinations) and all.
The Great Society opened last week, with many of the same actors in the cast. I don’t know how Shenkkan manages to weave together the stories he has pulled. How does one choose what stays in and what gets cut (at 3 hours, down from 3 1/2 when they printed the program; there’s clearly been a lot of cutting)? How does one create a history full of details that never gets slow? (I will admit to some amazing naps during some of Shakespeare’s histories.) I’ll have to see if I can take some quality time with the production book while we’re up here to try to get a glimpse of the process that led to this play: OSF keeps 3-ring binders in the Members Lounge for each of the current productions.
I could watch Jack Willis all day: he is larger than life as LBJ. Kenajuan Bentley manages to inhabit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr without it being a caricature, though we were reminded again and again (especially in the treatment of the assassination, which, admittedly would have been nearly impossible to show on stage) that this isn’t his play.
It would be nice to be able to come see the show again at the end of the season. The script, though it flows beautifully, is still a little raw in the actors’ mouths, and the precise use of multimedia which was so impressive in All the Way is a little uneven in this production.
I was lucky enough to get to watch this with my dad, who lived through the events, watching along on TV as a teenager, reading the Chronicle, and then from the vantage of UC Berkeley in the midst of some of the later protests.
Win Goodbody wrote a beautiful detailed review at Portland Theater Scene.