It may be that I am a political junkie to some extent or it may be that I believe those who do not learn from history are damned to repeat it, but I found the Zach Theatre’s production of The Great Society compelling, dynamic, and utterly entertaining. Yes, LBJ is a local boy made good so to speak, but this is much, much more than that. It is a reminder to every member of the audiences of the progress we had come through and how we as a society are regressing in recent months.
The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan extends the LBJ story to the post-election period where Johnson took the helm and began the difficult task of governing. He was no novice to either the process or the political arena, but his power, though formidable, was of a different kind. He still knew where the levers were and how to push them, but the dynamics were different, and though he was elected as his own man and not just the successor to a slain president, he seemed to carry the burden of legitimacy. Along with those issues comes the tug of war between the Oval Office and the Legislature and the growing tensions not only in the south but also in Vietnam.
Steve Vinovich’s performance of LBJ is something to behold. I occasionally had to remind myself that this was not really LBJ. He captured not only the nuance of voice and physical presence, but the toughness, the compassion, the soft-spots for the poor, the underprivileged, the voiceless, the minorities. We see the complexity of governing, and for a man who had been a formidable power in the Senate this was beyond frustrating. Many moments of the show are so anxiety producing because of the tension that is built by the ensemble of power house actors as LBJ moves in to give any one of the players in his very large game of chess “The Treatment.” Here is where Vinovich really shines in the moments when we see LBJ have enough of the political niceness and come down firm and hard making the outcome his, and his alone.
We also see the impact of the change that was taking place in America and the rise of political activism and its impact on society as well as the political process and the traditional way of doing business. Here the Zach production again shines in that the supporting cast members contribute mightily to this theme. Each actor is tasked with playing multiple personalities and political figures of the 1960’s, while still maintaining their main character for Cecil Washington, Jr. that would be Martin Luther King Jr. while he does not resemble Dr. King as closely as Vinovich does, his voice and strong stage presence shows the heart of man who fought for all people regardless of color, and yet held back a burning anger for the actions or lack there of from some many powerful people. Watching, Jeff Jeffers as Senator Bobby Kennedy is heart-breaking and awe inspiring because he is so believable and yet we all know what the outcome will be. David B. Jarrott as J. Edgar Hoover and Walter Cronkite is marvelous reminding us we have a pool of extreme talent in Austin, joining him is Michelle Alexander as Sally Childress and Coretta Scott King however we feel her most inspired role is as one of the many versions of protesters and marchers through out the story, here we see Ms. Alexanders passion in a modern day application. Then there is Meredith McCall as Lady Bird who brings a sweetness and humility to the White House, those are just a few of the outstanding performances in this power packed show.
The technical aspects of the production were equally well executed. While they repeated some of their earlier production ways of dealing with shifting scenes and locations, they introduced symbolic elements that captured the emotional shift of the political atmosphere. As the show progresses the audiences is surrounded by the visuals of the decade that changed America and the World forever!
As I left the theatre my thought was I wish every high school and junior high school student in Texas could see this show…their history classes, especially those dealing with the three branches of government would have much greater meaning and relevance for them. However this is a show that EVERY man, woman, and child should see from both sides of the political aisle. A show that reminds us of where we’ve been and where we are headed if we don’t change course and quickly.