At a time when our nation is riveted to partisan politics, it is refreshing to take a page out of history with the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s “The Great Society.” Last year, the Asolo began our journey with President Lyndon Baines Johnson with the fabulous production “All the Way.” That production introduced us to the intriguing tête a tête between Martin Luther King Jr. and LBJ. In the “The Great Society” the two continued their dance – each one needing each other, slightly loathing each other, yet, grudgingly respecting one another. Together, they made history developing sweeping civil rights legislation, and the process cost each of them dearly with their respective supporters and detractors.
A.K. Murtadha, reprising his role as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Matt DeCaro as LBJ, embodied their roles and complemented one another extremely well. DeCaro was a surprise; because I adored last year’s LBJ played by Nick Wyman, so I was prepared not to like his replacement as much. However, DeCaro had the more difficult task of finding the nuance in the LBJ who won the election but lost the war; and he did a remarkable job in his portrayal. While Vietnam was a momentary blip in “All the Way,” and a harbinger to LBJ’s ultimate Shakespearean downfall, the war loomed large throughout “The Great Society” with mounting death counts flashing regularly behind the action. DeCaro kept our attention and carefully guided us through LBJ’s painful decisions, which clearly took a great toll on the president.
The rhythmic chants of “All the Way with LBJ” gave way to “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” Through it all, DeCaro maintained the grace of his character, as we watched him suffer through writing individual notes to the families of lost soldiers and later a momentous chance encounter with a protestor whose face was pressed against the glass of his limo, her eyes searing into his soul. The political maneuvering of LBJ and his loyal Vice President Hubert Humphrey played by Tom Coiner were set against the growing tensions among MLK and the other leaders of the civil rights movement such as Bob Moses (Sean Blake) and Stokely Carmichael (Ian Fermy). We had the opportunity to watch how the sausage was made and to see just how many compromises everyone involved had to make in an effort to try to achieve “the great society.”
Ultimately, however, the dream of the great society was undone by the ravages of war. The administration’s promise to wage a war on poverty was squandered, and all that remained was violence in the streets and in a continent far from our shores.
Among the most noteworthy performances of “The Great Society” was Brett Mack’s pitch perfect Bobby Kennedy, who was constantly a thorn in the side of LBJ pleading with him to draw down the number of troops in Vietnam. We bore witness to the loss of the moral voices of MLK and Bobby Kennedy as well as LBJ’s painstaking decision not to run for a second full term. David Breitbarth was excellent as always, portraying a smug Richard Nixon eager to sit in the presidential chair before LBJ even had a chance to have a final moment in the Oval alone.
Although “the Great Society” did not show us a gleeful LBJ using all his political might to emerge victorious as in “All the Way,” it was an extremely well-acted and presented. There is no question that gaining a deeper and more nuanced understanding of history is crucial to maintaining our democratic society. All citizens would do well to watch such a thoughtful production, which has much to teach us about the bumpy road to progress and equality.