LBJ, MLK, and HHH race to pass the Civil Rights Act in History Theatre's 'All the Way'

Rick Spaulding

Rick Spaulding

During one of the many crises punctuating her husband’s tumultuous presidency, Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Blagen) reminds her husband that bravery runs in his family. “When your great-grandmother was hiding under the floorboards while the Comanches were raiding her house, did she flinch? It’s just not in your blood.”

In another play, that line might have played as a hackneyed pep talk. In All the Way, it’s a reminder that a long history of racial violence and exploitation can be conveniently minimized by white people who want to pride themselves on incidents of isolated courage. This Lyndon Johnson feels under-appreciated by Civil Rights activists, but it’s hard to applaud political compromise when there’s a burning cross in your front yard.

Robert Schenkkan’s historical epic won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, on the basis of a Broadway production that also earned a Tony for star Bryan Cranston. Pearce Bunting steps into the Oval Office for a new production at the History Theatre, the regional premiere of a play that features prominent roles for two Minnesotan characters.

All the Way follows LBJ through the first year of his presidency, as he works with Hubert H. Humphrey (Andrew Erskine Wheeler) and Martin Luther King Jr. (Shawn Hamilton) to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. St. Paul’s venerable Roy Wilkins (Joe Nathan Thomas) represents a cautious element among King’s inner circle, sparring with the assertive young Stokely Carmichael (Darrick Mosley).

Constraining the play’s time frame allows Schenkkan to draw out the complexities of Johnson’s situation, as the president strains to hold his fraying coalition together long enough to win the 1964 election. As the veteran politician comes to understand, the Democrats’ stand for civil rights will mean the abrupt defection of Southern voters. With LBJ, we watch America’s current party alignment take shape before our eyes.

It’s a remarkable feat of writing, and director Ron Peluso’s production largely does it justice.

The show is a real workout for Bunting, who has to sustain Johnson’s famously physical, animated manner of negotiation for two long acts during which he’s continuously at center stage. It’s an effective, while not entirely magnetic, performance. As MLK, Hamilton settles comfortably into a nuanced role. This King demonstrates both moral certitude and political calculation. Meanwhile, HHH seems almost to disappear into the scenery: A shrinking performance from Wheeler conveys very little of the fire that made the hometown hero into a liberal beacon.

Despite this production’s rough spots, All the Way remains an absorbing examination of how agonizingly complex it can be to render simple justice.

All the Way
History Theatre
30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
651-292-4323; through October 29