Brian Cranston , coming off of a seven-season stint on the hugely popular Breaking Bad is President Johnson, a Hirschfeld caricature come to life. He's dynamic and vividly captures Johnson's mannerisms, accent, and rough Texas edge, albeit perhaps a bit more gregariously than Johnson himself might have. He dissolves into the role. Unfortunately for Cranston, the Johnson he gets to create is limited in dimension. We never see any deeply held emotional conviction towards the people he is trying to protect. He tosses out the word "niggra" like he was talking about bed sheets. We are left with the impression that this is nothing more than a political stepping stone for him.
The play reveals dramatic exchanges between Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, Dr. Martin Luther King, Hubert Humphry, George Wallace and even his own mentor and friend, Georgia Senator Richard "Uncle Dick" Russell. Johnson uses his well-known political wiles to make malleable even the most strong-willed opponent. He charms the likes of Katherine Graham who is easily swayed to use her Washington Post to "publicize as 'racist' any member of Congress unwilling to give this bill [the Civil Rights Act] a proper hearing." Unfortunately, the play never evolves into more than a flicker-film of prominent moments in the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act.
The charmingly cantankerous John McMartin is Senator Russell. Rob Campbell is irascible as the segregationist George Wallace. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is played with authority and a light touch by Brandon J. Dirden. Michael McKean's J. Edgar Hoover is imbued with a strong undercurrent of Hoover's seemly, yet more effete side.
Most of the action is played down-center with rows of congressional desks aligned in a curve upstage of the main playing area where secondary action takes place. Various photos are projected on an upstage wall giving a more detailed indication of location. The scenic design by Christopher Acebo is static and gets in the way of director Bill Rauch. Rauch uses the rows of desks by staging secondary action on, behind and between them. The benches are not used enough as what they were designed for to make them a workable or logical part of a permanent set.
Cranston's performance is a big and worthy draw that makes All the Way a memorable evening of theatre. Its review of the social and political landscape in the void that was left after Kennedy's assassination keeps it interesting, even if it isn't all that dramatic.
All the Way is the first of a two-part series commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The second part, The Great Society will be a part of Oregon's upcoming summer season.