The Great Society, Ashland 2014

We were settling in our seats in The Bowmer Theater, just in from the early afternoon sun. We could hear the bell tone telling those still in the lobby “time to take your seats”. Down our aisle quietly breathless approach two boys, maybe twelve or thirteen, they smile an “excuse us” and “thank you” as we stand to make room for them to pass. “We made it!” one of them whispers triumphantly. They took two seats to my immediate left. The theater doors shut. The scene is the Oval Office with a rotunda backdrop, in which characters sit, and later throughout the play come and go, among them The First Lady “Ladybird” Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Bobby Kennedy, to name a few. Welcome and devices off announcement over, the lights dim then a spot shines on President Lyndon Baines Johnson who begins to reminisce about a bull ride at a rodeo and so “hold on for the ride” thus begins The Great Society. Soliloquy over, the stage lights reveal the Oval Office and the rotunda where a history is told.

This play encapsulates an important part of our history, a period of political and social hope, conflict, upheaval, unrest and change in three and a half hours. We see Lyndon Johnson’s goal for great social and economic change to reduce poverty, broaden the scope of opportunity to all, provide fair and affordable healthcare undermined by political party jostling for power, pork barrels, keeping the status quo of racial repression and a little conflict in Southeast Asia. We see the body count rise from then hundreds to the tens of thousands with the passing of time as this “conflict” grows into a full-on war eventually sold as essential to anti-communism and paid for with too many lives and funds diverted from LBJ’s plans for social reform. Was he a politician himself? Yes. Sure it takes one to push through some of the social change he wanted to create. He wasn’t perfect but he had a great vision for us which eroded before his, and our, eyes.

As Johnson is advised about the increased forces needed in Vietnam, as he writes letters of condolences to mothers and wives, as he walks the line of trying to negotiate with Wallace and Daley as he tries to prevent the violence, as he sees Pettus Bridge, Watts, Chicago in flames and under fire…as all this escalates the stage set itself begins to deteriorate, burn, fall apart…subtle but effective use of the rotunda behind he desk in The Oval Office. The Jackson Browne lyrics “…all his hopes and dreams begin and end there” come to mind though I do not mean to imply that former President Johnson was a “Pretender”.

As this tale of history unfolds on stage, the boys beside me are enthralled, they lean forward, they are engaged. The arm of the boy next to me at one point rests against my arm…it is warm in the air conditioning, there is a comforting humanity to it. At intermission they talk of the play. I cannot help but think of the important bits of history left out of my early education and wonder if this period of time that I lived through was presented to these boys in their history lessons and if so, how much, in what way? And I think, what a wonderful opportunity for them to learn about this pivotal, painful time in history. And I think how real the messages are today with our own attempts at healthcare reform and the political infighting that make it such a struggle. I think of Ferguson. I also think of hope.

I think this is an important play and was brilliantly written, produced, directed, acted. Wonderful set design by Christopher Acebo. Director: Bill Rauch. Jack Willis is a convincing Lyndon Baines Johnson and Terri McMahon is a strong Ladybird. In fact, the cast all round was spot on.

Seattle friends you’ll have the opportunity to see this play. It was commissioned and co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theater and will be coming to the Rep later this year for a December through January run. This is part of American Revolutions: United States History Cycle conceived by Rauch and colleagues “in the spirit and on the scale of Shakespeare’s history cycle.” I look forward to seeing more!

“The Great Society”, Seattle Rep

“The Great Society”, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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