Theater Week! Learn About Civil Rights In The LBJ Era In The Great SocietyBy Caroline Cao | October 28, 2019 | Entertainment
We’re giving our resident Geek Gal a new title: Theater Diva! Follow Caroline Cao as she takes in pretty much every play on the Great White Way.
Penned by Robert Schenkka, The Great Society on Broadway follows the rise and fall of the 36th American president, from his inauguration after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1965 and the 1969 inauguration of Richard Nixon.
Brian Cox (Succession) fills the shoes of Lyndon B. Johnson on the Lincoln Center Theater Broadway stage with confident gruffiness as he pushes his Great Society, the policies that will improve lives for poor people and fight social injustices. For the first act, Johnson’s confidence is boisterous as he consolidates his affairs and stares down foes like Governor George Wallace (David Garrison) and the latter’s racist obstructionist attacks on the Civil Rights march. But come Act II, Johnson’s compromises and alliances fall apart and he and the country pay the price of politics.
The Great Society has rock-solid Cox and a rock-solid cast, even if the quick entrance and exits of lesser-known figures do not leave a lingering impression. Playing Martin Luther King, Jr., alternating between drive and exhaustion, Grantham Coleman emerges as arguably the show’s stealth protagonist, coping with the pressures of police brutality and marches and calling Johnson out on the double standards inflicted on Negro neighborhoods. Grantham has a powerful moment where he sits stone-faced, haunted by the specter of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Christopher Livingston), a real-life civil rights activist who sacrificed his life in the name of equality. Notables include Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) as a loyal vice president and the smarmy Robert F. Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham).
The script doesn’t flatter the presidential portrait by hammering his unapologetic callousness when discussing racial politics and the fatalities of his actions, particularly concerning the prolonging of the Vietnam War, the mounting number of the wounded and casualties denoted by an ominous moving ticker in the backdrop. Scripting sympathy is not the strongest suite through some Shakespearian flourishes, such as when Johnson struggles to compose letters to families of fallen Vietnam War soldiers and contemplates the public hatred. Most of his domestic interaction with his wife Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick) feels like shavings rather than insight.
Director Bill Rauch takes advantage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre circular space, scatting ensemble of protestors around the theatre, situating his supporting characters, quite effectively planting the president sometimes as if he is a supporting player in King’s story and revealing that even a president can be helpless to the scope of a collapsing system.
If you’re into a succession of stratagems and the restless backstage of politics, this play does deliver. The action pumps with urgency at every moment and turn, as protestors and politicians enter and exit and engulf the space. The play never collapses upon itself and well consolidates its stronger and weaker elements. It’s awake but doesn’t quite boom.