Photo Courtesy of Roger Mastroianni

Steve Vinovich, center, playing President Lyndon Baines Johnson and members of the cast meet center stage during a production of “All The Way,” which ran through Oct. 9.

 

October 13, 2016

Allen Theatre goes ‘All the Way’ with a political performance

If you are a fan of Netflix’s “House of Cards” or ABC’s new series “Designated Survivor” – where intense political drama revolves around intriguing personalities – then you should schedule in Cleveland Play House’s “All the Way” between binge-watching.

The 2014 Tony Award-winning drama, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, chronicles the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s accidental presidency in 1964.

The play opens just after the assassination of JFK and explores LBJ’s (Steve Vinovich) efforts to maneuver members of Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964. All the while he must placate Martin Luther King Jr. (Jason Bowen) and his advisors and NAACP colleagues (Biko Eisen-Martin, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jeffrey Grover, Joshua David Robinson, Charles E. Wallace) while retaining the support of southern senators (Stephen Bradbury, Timothy Crowe) for his candidacy for the upcoming election.

Although the Broadway production boasted AMC’s “Breaking Bad” TV star Bryan Cranston in the lead, CPH’s Vinovich is a tremendous LBJ. He beautifully captures the man’s southern charm as well as his explosive temper.

Similarly, Bowen brings to the stage MLK’s strong physical presence and spot-on vocal delivery, particularly during a scene in which he delivers a chilling eulogy.

Although neither actor looks like his iconic character – and Cranston used facial prosthetics to do so – the resemblance is striking.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the huge ensemble, which consists largely of similarly dressed older white men playing Alabama Governor George Wallace (Greg Jackson), FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (William Parry), liberal senator Hubert Humphrey (Donald Carrier), and others. As they are each, in turn, repeatedly paraded on and off the stage for brief scenes, director Giovanna Sardelli does not make it easy to distinguish one from the next.

All this takes place on a breathtaking set designed by Robert Mark Morgan. Upon entering the Allen Theater, the audience encounters a facsimile of the Oval Office, which doubles as all other locations courtesy of Michael Lincoln’s isolating lighting and Dan Scully’s vivid projections of location shots and 1960’s news reports on the surrounding curved walls. It is brilliantly executed.

But be forewarned: “All the Way” is longer, wordier and more complex than any like-minded episodic TV program and requires more endurance and investment to watch.

Proof can be found in the recent HBO adaptation of the play, which failed to sweep the ratings the way the 36th President did the electoral map in 1964.

No, “All the Way” needs to be seen in person to be best appreciated. Only then can you experience the power of the performance and witness, first-hand, how recent history and its players measure up to current affairs and today’s politicians.



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