The Houston Alley Theatre set for “Great Society” is a marvel, a backdrop that, by turns, takes on the grandeur of the White House Oval Office, Civil Rights march infrastructure, and ever-increasing tallies of Vietnam dead.
Frequently, it’s also the setting for the folksy stories Lyndon Baines Johnson was famous for, the kind of down-home truth telling that drew people to him before he circled in for whatever it was he was after. And he was always after something.
“Great Society,” which runs through Feb. 18, brings something new to the telling of LBJ’s larger-than-life presence and equally enormous legacy.
And that’s saying something, considering the number of books, movies and other depictions of one of America’s more colorful presidents.
Part two of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s Tony award-winning “LBJ Plays,” the production focuses on 1963 to 1969, a tumultuous time period filled with landmark legislation and seminal moments in the Civil Rights movement.
“Great Society,” with Brandon Potter as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, succeeds powerfully in detailing the impossibly challenging nature of LBJ’s two terms as president.
No, Potter doesn’t channel LBJ, like Bryan Cranston did in the HBO feature film that was adapted from the Broadway production. But he captures something of his rough-hewn charisma, and his firm grasp of the power held in his hands, like a cowboy riding a bucking bull at the rodeo – one of he stories he tells throughout the course of the play.
Those folksy stories, and expert, calculated cajoling of influencers, is a constant current throughout the play, as is Johnson’s willingness to stretch the truth and/or otherwise embody the contradictions required of modern politicking.
Johnson’s action and inaction helped to define and create the steady stream of culture-changing landmarks in the 1960s. Nobody in the fray walked away unscathed, and “Great Society” calls to mind both the great things he aspired to —and the great failures.
In the end, he was just one of many occupants of the Oval Office, as the play makes clear, as a facile Richard Nixon takes office after Johnson declined to seek re-election.
At times uncomfortable to watch, as the play pulls no punches in its frank portrayal of how Blacks were treated in the deep South, or of how the country’s leaders lied to its people during the Vietnam War’s escalation, it is, nonetheless, a retelling of history that should not be missed.
Fascinated as most people are by White House maneuvers in 2018, this look back at a president grappling with issues in the 1960s is both a history lesson and a reminder of what the Commander-In-Chief once represented.
“The Great Society” runs through Feb. 18 at Alley Theatre.
Cover photo by Karen Almond. Shawn Hamilton as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Brandon Potter as President Lyndon Baines Johnson