Friday, August 9, 2013

'The Great Society': New Play Examines the Ambitious Presidency of Lyndon Johnson

Playwright Alexander Harrington has much to say about President Lyndon Johnson in The Great Society, the compelling and ambitious new play now on view at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. 

With a running time closing in on three hours, some pruning is in order.  Yet it is easy to sympathize with Mr. Harrington’s impulse to avoid leaving out anything that would shed light on Mr. Johnson, a complicated larger-than-life personality whose Presidential career was launched with one instantaneous explosive event and was later brought to its knees by a more prolonged one.   

I’m speaking, of course, of the assassination of Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, President Kennedy, and the impossibly-out-of-control crisis known as Vietnam.  Either of these bookend events could have inspired a play in and of itself.  Does anyone, for instance, remember the 1967 eviscerating satire MacBird by Barbara Garson, in which President and Lady Bird Johnson were depicted as Shakespeare’s ambitious assassins, the Macbeths?  (Starring Stacy Keach and Rue McClanahan as the wanton couple, it left an indelible memory in my teenage mind, falling so close in time to the events it depicted).  

But Mr. Harrington has no such ax to grind, other than to illuminate our understanding of a President whose place in history remains opaque.  He calls this play The Great Society in order to focus on Mr. Johnson’s powerful social justice agenda, one that extended to civil right for African Americans, access to medical care for all, and an all-out assault on poverty in America.  Lest we forget, Mr. Johnson used his highly polished skills as a tenacious persuader and arm-twister to push through the Senate and House of Representatives a remarkable number of landmark pieces of legislation—among them, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Medicare—and to establish such programs as Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.    

All of this occurred under the noses of the Conservative members of Congress, who found themselves outranked and outmaneuvered at every turn.  (I pause here to note that in the current political climate, the Conservatives are doing their very best to dismantle every vestige of the progressive programs that first saw the light of day during the Johnson Administration.)

But Mr. Harrington’s play is not just about progressive politics.  President Johnson was a complex man, with an outsize personality characteristic of someone with bipolar disorder.  He was given to periods of indefatigable mania and bouts of soul-withering depression, both of which are on display in The Great Society.  Like many others who see themselves as visionary leaders, Mr. Johnson suffered from great self-doubt, and demanded both gratitude and loyalty from those on whom he bestowed his largesse.  This led to episodes of bombastic anger and rifts between Mr. Johnson and members of his inner circle, including his Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

It also led to some interesting interactions, congenial and otherwise, between Mr. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even when they were on the same side of issues of civil rights.  Mr. Harrington has written several scenes (not all of them historically accurate, as the playwright explains in an essay in the playbill) that bring together the two great leaders, who often quarrel over “timing.” 

Other scenes in the play depict Mr. Johnson’s interactions with members of the Senate and Congress, with his wife Lady Bird, and with his advisors.  Key among these is his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, instrumental in prodding Mr. Johnson into escalating the Vietnam conflict into full-scale war. 

Ultimately, it is Vietnam that pulls at and plagues the Johnson presidency to the end.

The Democrats are frantic that, in his first Presidential run after completing President Kennedy’s term, Mr. Johnson must not be seen as too “dovish” on Vietnam, especially in the wake of his opponent’s (Barry Goldwater) staunch hawkish stance.  Even so, Johnson wants to limit the war and agrees with those who advise for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops.  He gladly accepts McNamara's estimate that it will likely be over by 1965, shortly after the election.  Of course, that never comes to pass, and the war begins to dominate every conversation and every decision, and the shouts of anti-war protestors (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) drown out all else. 

Mr. Harrington does a fine job of capturing all this grand sweep of history in The Great Society.  I would simply urge him to go back and excise those occasional places where dramatic intercourse crosses the line into the territory of classroom lecture.  Or, if he simply can’t let go, he should perhaps turn this one play into two—one ending at Johnson’s defeat of Goldwater; the other ending as it does now, with Johnson’s capitulation to the tide of popular opinion. 

Meanwhile, we have this production, which continues at the Clurman through August 24.  While it doesn’t completely succeed at avoiding a certain static quality (how many ways are there to depict a meeting in the Oval Office?), the play is well served by its cast of 15 (plus one offstage voice), doing excellent work under the direction of Seth Duerr.

Particularly effective are Yaakov Sullivan as Senator Richard Russell, Curtis Wiley as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Charles Gray as Bayard Rustin, Reed Armstrong (most evocative of Robert McNamara), Jeff Burchfield as a simpering George Wallace, and, especially, Mitch Tebo as Lyndon Johnson, who—even in the early preview that I saw—dominated the stage just as his character dominated everyone and everything around him. 

The way of doing business in the political arena has shifted from the one-on-one back-room deal making at which President Johnson was so adept. The Great Society occupies the territory of such plays as Gore Vidal's The Best Man in depicting the office of the Presidency from another time and place. Who knows when we will see another personality come along with the strength, determination, and clout of Lyndon Johnson?  

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