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All the Way
by Robert Shenkkan
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 11, 2015

Brian Dykstra Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Brian Dykstra
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 1960s may not seem that long ago, but for many who go to see The Rep’s lastest production of Robert Shenkkan’s All the Way, it’s a time period they’ve only heard about in history books, or school, or documentaries. The first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency was one that’s had profound impact on American culture, although it takes plays like this to remind us sometimes of where we have been, and also by inference, of how far we still have to go. This meticulously researched and impeccably staged production at the Rep is more than a history lesson, though. It’s a vibrant retelling of a moment in history that musn’t be forgotten.

The play starts on the day Johnson (Brian Dykstra) takes office after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy in November, 1963. Johnson, as a Southern Democrat, has a lot of ties to the “Dixiecrat” wing of his party that was characterized by a strong promotion of states’ rights and opposition to civil rights for African-Americans. The first act shows Johnson adjusting to being president as well as working for the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. The second act deals primarily with his 1964 election campaign. Johnson is a strong personality–an opinionated, strong-willed, and hard-driving politician who will go to any lengths to get his agenda through. The wheeling and dealing aspect of politics is at the forefront here, showing the manipulation and compromise that’s often required to get anything done. Particularly prominent are his dealings with eventual running mate Hubert Humphrey (Kurt Zischke), and prominent civil rights leaders, and particularly Martin Luther King (Avery Glymph), who is shown having to deal with factions within his own movement.

This play is at once profoundly educational, supremely fascinating, and somewhat discouraging, considering all the “dirty” aspects of politics that it shows along with the progress. The noble goals are often overshadowed by threats, infighting, and disillusionment. It’s a realistic and sometimes brutal depiction of the political process, with Dykstra’s dynamic, multi-faceted portrayal of the fascinating and often contradictory Johnson at front and center. Many other historical figures of the day are represented here, and aside from Dykstra, Zischke, Glymph, and a few others, most of the actors play multiple roles.  This production is particularly commendable for its use of many local St. Louis actors, such as Michael James Reed, Jerry Vogel, Ron Himes, J. Samuel Davis, and Alan Knoll in various roles.

Aside from the terrific Dykstra, the standout performers here include Reed as the scandal-plagued Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, Zischke as the hardworking but sometimes overwhelmed Humphrey, Robert Vincent Smith as a particularly smarmy FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Bernadette Quigley in multiple roles, and Davis, Richard Prioleau, and J. Cameron Barnett who each play several roles among the civil rights leaders. Glymph as King gives a generally fine performance, but lacks the sense of presence and charisma that the real King possessed. Especially when delivering some of King’s speeches, Glymph appears to be mimicking King’s cadences, but without sufficient power behind them. For the most part, however, this is a  very strong cast, many of whom seamlessly move from role to role in extremely convincing portrayals.

Technically, this production is nothing short of marvelous. The multi-level set by James Kronzer provides the ideal context for the action in this play where the action quickly moves from location to location. There are some excellent projections by Matthew Young that provide historical context and help move the story along, and Rob Denton’s lighting is first rate. The sound design by Fitz Paton deserves a particular mention here, considering the superb evocation of old-style echoing sound systems during the scenes where characters are speaking to a large crowd. Dorothy Marshall Englis’s costumes are suitably 60s, as well, helping to bring the audience into the time period and adding to the characterizations of the performers.

All the Way, is no dry history lesson, even though it deals with a time many Americans (including myself) do not remember first-hand.  It’s a remarkable portrait of a dynamic and often controversial historical figure, as well as many other notable political leaders of the day, portraying them as human beings and not saints or lifeless talking heads. Politics can be messy, but progress can and does happen. That seems to be the primary message of this piece, which has been given a thoroughly compelling production at The Rep. Whether you remember this era in American History or not, this play is a must-see.

Cast of All the Way Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of All the Way
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s production of All the Way runs until October 4th, 2015.

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