Review #1 of 2: THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schekkan, Zach Theatre, January 25 - March 5, 2017
by Brian Paul Scipione
Tour de force: a masterly or brilliant stroke, creation, effect or accomplishment.
A tour de force is easily defined but not so easily described. So to say that Zach Theatre’s latest production, The Great Society, is a tour de force is accurate but not particularly enlightening. And yet this exact turn of phrase is required because of the generous scope of the play. It wouldn’t do to say things like well done, on point or brilliant, because the production itself is so ambitious and grand in scope.The performance lasts more than three hours and covers seven years of history during an incredibly tumultuous era. The script is solid with intense moments and riveting dialogue. Working with these words and actions, a director could present it in a myriad of ways. Director Dave Steakley seems to have opted, fortunately for the audience, to make the narrative as lucid and exciting as possible.
It would be inaccurate to call the set bare bones, especially when the opening scene includes a tableau of the all the play’s characters stretched frozen across the stage, but set design is kept to a minimum relying on a few chairs and a desk. Here the actors' performances (pardon the pun) take center stage. So it would be fair to say at this point, that the essence of the tour de force mentioned above is the seamless intertwining of the play’s multiple narratives, accomplished through masterful character acting that results in a total suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. This story of perhaps the most pivotal years of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency is brilliantly brought to life. It was no easy task, as one can surmise from the fact that the playbill includes a four-page audience guide with atimeline from 1963 to 1969 and short bios of nine principal characters.
Yet, for all the complexity that besets American politics, the storyline is easy to trace. LBJ has a vision for a great society, the creation of progressive social programs to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. He supports the arts and works hard to be remembered for his contributions to the American way of life.
At the beginning of the play everything is moving along just swell. We hear the cast’s voices ring out in the enthusiastic chant, “All the way! LBJ!” and it does indeed seem like he’s unstoppable -- until the inevitable chinks in his armor slowly begin to appear. The first may arguably be when he refuses Martin Luther King’s request to send in federal troops to protect the protesters at an upcoming march. We see King repeatedly come to LBJ and request support, but LBJ declines; he wants to proceed with more caution. He explains, “I don’t know what I’m going to do or when I’m going to do it. I like to keep my options open.”
This hesitancy is also clear in the way he slowly but very deeply gets involved in the Vietnam War. He is like a man caught in a pool of quicksand: watching the process is grimly fascinating.
Zach’s production values are as always top notch, but I stress that the actors’ performances make this show so enjoyable. Steve Vinovich as LBJ showcases the transformative stresses and strain that a president has to endure. He is light-hearted and whimsical at the beginning, popping off Texan idioms like a kid with Black Cat firecrackers. In the second act he is taut and slightly caustic. Curse words infiltrate his dialogue. By the third act, he is crestfallen and dismayed, with a genuine confusion. He tells his wife Ladybird in a tender moment, “I don’t understand why they hate me so much.”
The tables have completely turned for the president, and we feel this in Vinovich’s exuberant and emotive performance. LBJ has become so invested in the Vietnam War that he has allowed Congress to cut the funding for his beloved social programs to funnel the money into combat. And on top of that the White House is surrounded by anti-war protestors. The cast’s chant now is no longer as peppy asin the earlier act: “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many did you kill today?”
Cecil Washington, JR turns in an equally outstanding performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only has he captured MLK’s famous voice and oratorical bravado; he brings to life the passion and vulnerability of a man who like LBJ faces many constant and shifting challenges. He has to decide when to march, when to stop to protect his people, and when to defy the president by publicly disagreeing with him about the Vietnam War.
While the three-hour length maybe a challenge to some audience members, The Great Society is wholly worth it. It a big slice of history told as a narrative, structured very much like a modern movie. Three acts and many characters, but with a laugh or sigh or a gasp coming from the audience every five minutes. The script is marvelous: dense but easy to take in. Whether you know a lot or a little about this period in history, but especially if you lived through it, I recommend this production.
January 25 - March 05, 2017
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704
Wednesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Saturday matinees February 4 - March 4 start at 2:00 p.m.
Special events in celebration of The Great Society:
- GLBT Pride Night: Thursday, January 26, 2017
- Wednesday Post-Show Talkback – February 1, 2017
- Sign Interpreted and Open Captioned Performance – February 1, 2017
- Champagne Opening Night – Thursday, February 2, 2017
- Z Lounge: Musical entertainment in the Topfer Theatre’s Main Lounge.
Tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.zachtheatre.org, by phone at 512-476-0541 ext. 1, or in person at the ZACH Theatre Box Office, in the Topfer Theatre, 202 South Lamar Blvd. (corner of Riverside Drive and South Lamar Blvd.) Monday through Saturday, 12 noon – 7 p.m. ZACH Theatre is wheelchair accessible. Discounts are available for groups of 8 or more. Student Rush Tickets are $18 one hour before show time (with valid ID)
Recommendation: Thirteen and up. Adult language.
Run time: Three hours including two intermissions.