Completing the cycle that began with the 2016 Dallas Theater Center/Alley Theatre co-production of All the Way, The Great Society depicts the tumultuous final four years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. And “tumultuous” is putting it lightly, as there is seemingly no moment of peace for LBJ throughout the play as he wrestles with how to handle civil rights struggles, the escalating Vietnam War, and more.
Brandon Potter reprises his role as Johnson, going head-to-head with a series of political figures. They include Martin Luther King, Jr. (the returning Shawn Hamilton), who pushes Johnson to keep his word on supporting voting rights; Sen. Bobby Kennedy (Jay Sullivan), a fellow Democrat with whom he has a testy relationship; Gov. George Wallace (Chris Hury), who seems unable or unwilling to help with racial unrest in Alabama; and many more.
As with All the Way, the audience is thrust into the middle of an ongoing story, as playwright Robert Schenkkan assumes we have a certain familiarity with 1960s U.S. history. Instead of leading us by the nose through the events of the era, he provides a certain number of cultural touchstones while also diving deep into the debates LBJ had with a variety of people. It takes a few scenes to catch up, but once the play gets going under Kevin Moriarty's direction, it moves like a freight train.
What becomes abundantly clear throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time is that being president is a thankless job. The play alternately depicts Johnson as a hard ass and a manipulator, but also as someone who could be weak-kneed at critical moments. It’s in the intensification of the Vietnam War that Johnson comes off the worst, as he accedes to the wishes of Secretary of Defense William McNamara (Chris Hutchison) at nearly every turn.
Utilizing the same spare but intimidating set that Beowulf Boritt designed for All the Way, full of Corinthian columns and a basic Oval Office setup, The Great Society keeps the focus on the script and the actors. Nearly everyone except for Potter plays more than one character, and the efficiency and speed with which the actors — a blend of talent from Dallas and Houston — switch costumes, hairstyles, and personas never fails to impress.
As he’s at the center of nearly every scene, it’s imperative that Potter command attention. His nasally impression of LBJ may or may not be fully accurate, but in the context of the play, it works wonders. He exudes the charm, gravitas, and anger of Johnson, putting forth a fully-realized character in the process.
The events in The Great Society are not pretty and can be frustrating to see transpire, but it’s the emotions that the play stirs up that make it so compelling. With outstanding performances and a crackerjack script, it’s one of the best history lessons you’ll ever experience.
The Great Society, a Dallas Theater Center/Alley Theatre co-production, runs at the Wyly Theatre through April 1.