Robert Schenkkan Talks LBJ Tragedy in All The Way Follow Up The Great Society

Playbill.com catches up with award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan and actor Jack Willis, starring as Lyndon Baines Johnson in The Great Society, Schenkkan's second installment of plays about President Johnson.

Robert Schenkkan
Robert Schenkkan (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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The last time we checked in on Lyndon Baines Johnson, the man was flying high.

The embattled Texan had warded off a series of intense domestic challenges to take the White House for his first full term, battling and maneuvering through the passage of a highly contentious Civil Rights Act and staring down a number of tough opponents. As both the history books and Robert Schenkkan's aptly-named play reflect, LBJ had gone " all the way" and as the curtain was about to come down, a victorious President Johnson was ready to party.

But as the history books also reflect, that ain't the end of the story. Johnson wasn't done, and Schenkkan wasn't done with him.

As All The Way was wending its way through an impressive string of hit productions from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to American Repertory Theater and ultimately a Tony Award-winning production on Broadway, the playwright was hard at work on the saga's second part. The Great Society, a co-commission between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and Seattle Repertory Theatre, takes LBJ to war. The President's ambitious set of social programs known as The Great Society and his voting rights legislation ratchets up the tension in Southern states while America's escalating involvement in the Vietnam War rips the country — and Johnson's presidency — apart. As the company of The Great Society geared up for the production's opening in Ashland, OR, the team members had cause to look forward as well as back.

The OSF production reunites Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch with many of the same OSF company members who created the 2012 world premiere of All The Way including Jack Willis as LBJ, Kenajuan Bentley as his frequent political nemesis Dr. Martin Luther King, Peter Frechette as Hubert Humphrey and Terri McMahon as Lady Bird Johnson. Although most of those original company members were not part of the Broadway production of All The Way, the summer and fall will give the Ashland-ers plenty of time to get reacquainted with the world of LBJ.

Following the OSF run of The Great Society, the company will remount the production at the Seattle Rep alongside a new production of All The Way. The two plays will be performed in repertory. All The Way will be adapted into a film version for HBO with Broadway star Bryan Cranston reprising his Tony-winning performance as LBJ.

Seattle viewers who get to see All The Way and The Great Society side by side — or back to back in marathon — will undoubtedly notice the most significant difference between the two plays.

"All The Way is drama," says Schenkkan. "The Great Society is tragedy."

"The triumph of Lyndon Johnson particularly in the first year of his second term is astounding, but very quickly Vietnam begins to overwhelm everything and simultaneously the American Civil Rights Movement fractures and ultimately splits apart, and the entire country undergoes a convulsive painful kind of confusion and violence," the playwright continues. "Those of us who lived through it remember it vividly, and those who haven't, I think, will be shocked to learn what this period was like and how it has shaped the world we live in today."

Given their thematic focus on the past as a signpost to the present, the two-play LBJ cycle slots seamlessly into OSF's American Revolutions initiative, a ten-year cycle of up to 37 commissioned plays, launched in 2008, which spring from moments of change in United States history. OSF artistic director Rauch, who traversed the country and then investigated diverse segments of the Los Angeles community while running the Cornerstone Theatre Company, felt that Schenkkan was an ideal commissionee for American Revolutions.

"Robert frequently writes about our country's striving for and failure to meet up to its promise," says Rauch, who has now directed five Schenkkan plays. "I have always been profoundly interested in stories that resonate with who we are as a country and how we got here." Schenkkan grew up in Texas, and his family knew the Johnsons. As a chronicler of American history, the playwright said LBJ had long been on his radar screen as a potential subject of drama, particularly since Johnson was a man of Shakespearean ambitions and actions.

"We very much live in the world that LBJ created, and I think it's extremely useful to revisit that time in order to better understand where we are," Schenkkan says. "Issues of power and morality have a recurring interest in my work, and nobody exemplifies it better than LBJ, who sought power so avidly and wielded it so ferociously with such mixed results."

Willis is another self-professed Johnson fan. Having grown up Catholic in rural Kansas, Willis said his family's love of President John F. Kennedy transferred over to JFK's successor once tragedy struck.

"I appreciated (Johnson's) rags to riches story," says Willis. "Between his Civil Rights legislation, his down home-ness, his dogs, his humor and his larger-than-life persona, he was just charming. And he came from dirt poor people to become the President of the United States."

With Ashland being a Bard town, the Shakespearean resonance of the two plays will strike a chord as well. The Great Society in particular illustrates the "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" principal and, indeed, Rauch notes that audiences might feel the echoes of Henry IV's difficulties and the contrasting tones of the two Henry IV plays.

And speaking of careworn monarchs, since he last stepped into LBJ during OSF's 2012 season, Willis has played King Lear at OSF. The latter role took more out of him than All The Way, although Willis admits that The Great Society may be the most draining experience of all. The Seattle run will be especially challenging, when he'll have to do double Johnson duty, sometimes on the same day.

Asked about his routine for getting into character, Willis admits to certain OCD tendencies.

"I do the same thing at a certain moment before I put the wig on," says Willis. "I don't wear makeup. About five minutes before they call 'places,' I find a chair backstage to sit in and I have a little verbal exercise I go through. I make the sign of the cross nine times and sit there and get ready.

"And I eat mints. They're all over my pockets, in the desk on stage and backstage. At intermission, I'll go out and have a cigarette, eat more mints and start the same routine all over again."