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Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. in "All the Way" at Arena Stage.
Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. in "All the Way" at Arena Stage. (Stan Barouh)

The weighty chapter of American history that stretches from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the struggles by his successor to push civil rights legislation through a recalcitrant Congress contains the stuff of theater — noble ambitions, setbacks of one kind or another, deceptions, a few of genuine heroes, any number of vivid villains.

Robert Schenkkan packs as much of these events and characters as he can into his play "All the Way," enjoying a workout on the boards at Arena Stage.

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This examination of the first year of Lyndon Johnson's accidental presidency, November 1963 to November 1964, is a little too stuffed. Scenes fly by, especially in Act 1, like news briefs scrawling at the bottom of TV screens. Some of the dialogue barely has a chance to register before fresh props are rushed onstage for another lightning round.

"Our War," a collection of monologues by two dozen playwrights reflecting on the Civil War, is premiered at Arena Stage with help from Supreme Court's Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And yet, just as Schenkkan must have suspected, you cannot help but be caught up all over again in this pivotal period, when so much was at stake, so much just out of reach. It's an epic that's by turns fascinating, infuriating, inspiring — even funny. No matter how many books you've read, documentaries you've seen, it's well worth reliving.

The LBJ depicted in "All the Way" is as straight-talking (and often crude-talking) as we know him from TV footage and the secretly taped conversations that reveal him in all his unfiltered glory.

And the famous Johnson machinations, his deliciously devious version of arm-twisting (more like arm removal), register with fresh flair on the stage, especially since today's politicians seem to think that compromise means never having to give an inch. There's a great zinger at the top of Act 2 when Johnson sums up a fundamental truth of politics: "You're not running for office, you're runnin' for your life."

The play follows parallel stories. We see Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues affected by each decision, or postponed decision, at the White House, and by the hideous events in the South.

The hopes and suspicions, the conflict between King's nonviolent ideals and more aggressive approaches — all of this finds a voice here, too. It's an extra-pointed voice, given that so much of what has been happening lately in this country makes it seem as if there have hardly been any advances in civil rights since 1964.

(Folks who caught Washington National Opera's production of Philip Glass' "Appomattox" last fall will have a deja vu experience — that work, with a libretto by Christopher Hampton, covers some of the same ground, often in similar ways, as Schenkkan's play.)

If you're used to encountering performers who manage to evoke famous people right down to their hairlines, as almost everyone in the cast of "The People v. O.J. Simpson" on the FX TV series did, the Arena assemblage is a bit of a letdown.

From left: Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson in "All the Way" at Arena Stage.
From left: Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson in "All the Way" at Arena Stage. (Stan Barouh / Handout)

Stepping into LBJ's trousers (the ones he insists on being loose enough to make, um, certain parts of his anatomy comfortable), Jack Willis isn't exactly a spitting image. He doesn't look quite tall enough, and his voice doesn't conjure up the distinctive twang of the president's drawl or his measured speech patterns.

But Willis makes you forget about that quickly enough, makes you a believer. His is a fully realized portrayal, confident and colorful, whether snapping at his wife over trivial matters or dispensing wisdom about life and politics in fourth-wall-breaking monologues (he's adept at freshening occasional cliched lines in those passages).

The actor brings a touch of genuine pathos to a scene late in the play when Johnson expresses a wish for the one thing that keeps eluding him: "People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace, a little love. That's all I want."

Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith directs an appealing revival of the popular musical "Fiddler on the Roof."


Bowman Wright does potent work as Martin Luther King Jr., especially in scenes depicting the philosophical battles within the civil rights movement as patience starts to fade.

Susan Rome, well remembered for her vibrant Center Stage appearances, makes a sympathetic Lady Bird Johnson. Cameron Folmar (George Wallace) and Richmond Hoxie (J. Edgar Hoover) lay on the slime nicely.

Director Kyle Donnelly puts everyone though well-conceived paces on Kate Edmunds' set, which is liberally sprinkled with TV monitors. The primary visual element is a large, revolving presidential seal. With each whirl of that seal, you feel the churn of history and the inevitable toll-taking that comes from going all the way to do the right thing.

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