With what is going on in Washington DC this week it is hard to stay on track with the work that matters to each of us, individually. How do you steer clear of the weeds with this latest caper? I don’t want to be that person, the grouser, with the eye rolling and negativity. But not going there takes a concerted effort.
Here’s one solution: Distraction therapy*. Spend an evening with LBJ. And what’s more, spend that evening with an actor who is at the pinnacle of his career, the master of intensity on your TV screen as well as the stage: Bryan Cranston.
American Repertory Theater’s production of All The Way sends you back to the days (which some of us do remember, amazingly) when deals were struck across the isle, when politics was mano-a-mano, when big ideas—idealism, imagine that!—were stock-in-trade. LBJ was a master of getting the system to work.
The play begins the day of John Kennedy‘s assassination and runs through LBJ’s successful election as President. Over three hours long, playwright Robert Schenkkan gives us a full plate of issues—the Civil Rights struggle, J. Edgar Hoover and his maniacal attempts to discredit Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, the murder in Mississippi of three young men registering black voters, the maneuvering needed to secure his candidacy and presidential win, the arrest of LBJ’s longtime aid Walter Jenkins after he was discovered having sex in a men’s room. But through all these themes and stories—40 different characters are played by a small ensemble of versatile actors—Cranston is on stage throughout and his presence is rivetingly.
As a vehicle for Cranston, All the Way is a tour de force opportunity to show his stage chops. As a play however, it struggles with the same issues I have encountered many times with other historical dramas. Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times captures this issue succinctly:
Theater rooted in history always faces a fundamental problem. Hew too closely to the complicated crosscurrents of the story and you risk shapelessness; take too many liberties in streamlining the drama and you’re no longer in the realm of fact. With the exception of his comparatively unshaded portrait of Johnson, Mr. Schenkkan comes down firmly on the side of complexity, which may be the honorable path, but not necessarily the more rewarding one for the audience.
As a way to take your mind off our current disaster however, this performance is a straight thumbs up.
*A reader read this post and was confused by my use of the term distraction therapy. As used here it refers to something so immersive and compelling that it takes you out of your life completely. Good examples: Marathon weekends watching The Wire, by David Simon; The Coast of Utopia trilogy seen in sequence, by Tom Stoppard; And the classic that you can turn to again and again, A&E’s production of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth. Still the best.