Monday, September 21, 2015

ALL THE WAY • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Civil rights, the Constitution, race riots and the bare-knuckle business of politics. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that the focal points that take center stage in Robert Schenkkan’s Tony award winning play were set in the present. But “All the Way” covers the first 11 months of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency in 1963, immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s fictional, but the Rep’s strapping 49th season opener is based on true events, and the themes in this local premiere take you by surprise with a resonance that’s eerie, and frankly, quite sobering.

LBJ’s strategic maneuvering to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed is a testament to his tenacity, fighting tooth and nail to bend Congress to his will.
Brian Dykstra (President Lyndon Baines Johnson).
Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr.
These qualities are firmly illustrated through Brian Dykstra’s looming presence as our 36th President. He’s onstage for the majority of the play, and never fails to hold your attention, whether it’s during his periods of profane bluster, or his quieter moments when you can catch a glimmer of vulnerability. Through handshakes, phone calls and wry smiles, Johnson had to handle a segregationist delegation of white Southerners to get a milestone piece of legislation he was passionate about passed, along with dealing with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, played with slippery arrogance by Robert Vincent Smith, and Anderson Matthews as a magnetic Senator Richard Russell, a long-time friend and mentor in opposition to the civil rights movement, who finds himself at odds with Johnson. Civil Rights champions also had to be appeased. Leaving the Voting Rights Act out of the push for Civil Rights didn’t sit well with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., play by a measured Avery Glymph, nor the aggressive leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael (a fiery Richard Prioleau), or even the more cautious leaders -- Roy Wilkins (a dynamic J. Samuel Davis) and Rev. Ralph Abernathy (the Black Rep’s artistic director, Ron Himes). When three volunteers were murdered in Mississippi while trying to register black voters during the Freedom Summer, the heightened racial tensions in the country boiled over.

Lyndon B. Johnson (Brian Dykstra) and his team watch as
George Wallace (Jon Shaver) speaks.
Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Director Steven Woolf fluidly guides this huge cast through two acts, and the show’s 19 actors smoothly cover over 40 roles. In addition to first-rate performances by Bernadette Quigley as Lady Bird Johnson, who knows her husband's vulnerabilities better than most, and Myxolydia Tyler as Coretta Scott King and a powerfully resilient Fannie Lou Hamer, a volunteer brutalized in a Mississippi jail, there are also fine performances from local actors, including Gary Wayne Barker as Howard “Judge” Smith, Michael James Reed as Johnson’s trusted aide Walter Jenkins, Jerry Vogel as Stanley Levison and Alan Knoll in his Rep debut as Emanuel Celler.

The ensemble applauds as Lyndon B. Johnson (Brian Dykstra)
signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr.
James Kronzer’s handsome set was used to great effect, providing room for the action to play out on his multi-leveled tiers. Costumer Dorothy Marshall Englis captures the time with tie clips and cropped hairstyles, and Fitz Patton’s sound design punctuates scene shifts with percussive interstitials. Rob Denton highlights with pools of specific lights and Matthew Young’s projection design cunningly informs various locations.

It’s a gripping history lesson, particularly potent now as we’re in the midst of campaign season. The chords "All the Way" strikes are familiar, and the Rep’s production is excellent. It's playing until October 4th. Go see it!

The ensemble following the 1964 Presidential Election.
Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Steven Woolf
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through October 4 | tickets: $21 - $79.50
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, selected Wednesdays to Fridays at 8pm, selected Wednesdays at 1:30pm, Saturdays at 4pm, selected Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

Brian Dykstra* (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), Bernadette Quigley* (Lady Bird Johnson, Katharine Graham, Katherine St. George), Michael James Reed* (Walter Jenkins, William Colmer), Elizabeth Meadows Rouse* (Muriel Humphrey, Lurleen Wallace, White House Secretary), Kurt Zischke* (Hubert Humphrey), Anderson Matthews* (Richard Russell), Robert Vincent Smith* (J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Byrd), John Leonard Thompson* (Robert McNamara, James Eastland, William M. McCulloch, Paul B. Johnson), Avery Glymph* (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Ron Himes* (Rev. Ralph Abernathy), Jerry Vogel* (Stanley Levison, Seymore Trammell, Rev. Edwin King, John McCormack), Richard Prioleau* (Stokely Carmichael, James Harrison), Gary Wayne Barker* (Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, Howard “Judge” Smith, Everett Dirksen, Carl Sanders), Myxolydia Tyler* (Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer), Stephen D'Ambrose* (Strom Thurmond, King of Norway), Jon Shaver* (George Wallace, Walter Reuther, James Corman, Mike Mansfield), J. Samuel Davis* (Roy Wilkins, Aaron Henry), J. Cameron Barnett* (Bob Moses, David Dennis) and Alan Knoll* (Emanuel Celler, Network Announcer).

Scenic design by James Kronzer; costume design by Dorothy Marshall Englis; lighting design by Rob Denton; sound design by Fitz Patton; projection design by Matthew Young; casting directors, Rich Cole and Bob Cline; stage manager, Emilee Buchheit*; assistant stage manager, Lionel Christian*.

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

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