The first scene of All the Way, now playing at Dallas Theater Center, lasts approximately four minutes. President Kennedy has just been shot; Lyndon B. Johnson is on his way to take over. Dramatic music, lights fade, scene change. This Tony Award-winning political drama moves along at TV speed, written more like an episode of House of Cards than a presidential stage drama.
If the play sounds familiar, it's because
Walter White Bryan Cranston played All the Way's protagonist on Broadway and in an HBO special. Here, the divisive figure is played by the much younger, but still believable Brandon Potter, whose light Southern drawl and subtle domineering captures the complicated personality of LBJ, equal parts power-grabbing politician and civil rights diplomat. When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Robert Schenkkan to write the play, which premiered in 2012, it was arguably LBJ’s play — and that was even more true when it starred Cranston, a famous TV actor, in 2014. But in 2016, in a collaborative production between DTC and Houston’s Alley Theatre, the play belongs entirely to Martin Luther King Jr. and the activist leaders pressuring the White House to pass a bill that would ensure civil rights.
If LBJ entered office an "accidental president," he spent that first year ensuring he would have a full term. The play borrows from his campaign slogan and follows those months during which he maneuvers a charged political environment. Even though Potter is ruthless as LBJ and present in nearly every scene, the show's more urgent moments manifest in issues Americans still face today: inequity, racism, police violence. That is, when the black actors are on stage. Perhaps this is because the drama of the play otherwise hinges on whether or not LBJ will be elected to a full term, which we're 50 years too late to issue a spoiler alert for: He does in fact win.
But the play doesn't need Underwood-size drama to keep the audience engrossed. There's plenty of conflict surrounding his pursuit of landmark civil rights legislation originally promised by Kennedy, and that is where this play gets its heat. Dallas-based actor Adam A. Anderson delivers one of the play's most gripping monologues in the second act as Stokely Carmichael — the man who popularized the term "black power" — when he calls on America to "stand up." The entire cast echo his call to arms, while standing amongst the Lincoln Memorial-esque columns of set designer Beowolf Borritt's set.
The entire production — from Kevin Moriarty's snappy direction to the set, sound (Broken Chord) and lighting design (Clifton Taylor) – gives the play an almost dusty sense of collective memory. History can only be viewed from the present. And from that perspective, especially in a tense election year, what happened in 1963-'64 is just as relevant as ever.
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See All the Way through April 3 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets and more information at dallastheatercenter.org.