All the Way: the LBJ Play
‘All the Way’: The LBJ Play
September 2-October 2
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Playwright Robert Schenkkan has a faded memory of a family outing when he was a young boy in Austin, Texas. The family piled into the station wagon and was on the road when the car got stuck in the mud. To the rescue came Lyndon Baines Johnson, driving his own truck, “putting his shoulder to the wheel and getting us out of the ditch.”
“I don’t know whether that really happened or not – I was too young to remember,” he admits, laughing about the family’s visit to LBJ’s ranch. Years later he asked his older brother whether he remembered meeting Johnson. His response: “Yeah, it’s funny, I don’t really remember LBJ so clearly as I do being struck by how respectful our father suddenly became around this strange man.”
Schenkkan’s father, a pioneer in public television, had come to know the then-senator when he approached Johnson to get his support for what would become the first public television and radio station in the Southwest. As president, Johnson would go on to sign into law the bill that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“In my house, growing up,” Schenkkan recalls, “he was one of the good guys.” Decades later, Schenkkan wrote the play “All the Way” about Johnson’s efforts to gain support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. South Coast Repertory begins performances September 2.
After runs in Oregon and Boston, “All the Way” went to Broadway, where it won the 2014 Tony Award for best play, as well as best actor honors for Bryan Cranston. This year, HBO aired an Emmy-nominated movie adaptation, also starring Cranston.
Schenkkan’s research began, in a way, when he was 11, tagging along with his mother to work at LBJ’s presidential campaign headquarters. After receiving the commission, the playwright – who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1992 for “The Kentucky Cycle” – read biographies, listened to tape recordings and conducted interviews.
“The first question, of course, was what story do I want to tell,” Schenkkan says. He settled on the period between November 1963 and November 1964. “It was pretty clear I would be focusing on civil rights,” he says. “Everything that we fight about today has seeds in this time period – whether it’s civil rights, voting rights, immigration. Let’s not forget LBJ signed the most comprehensive immigration reform bill of the century, and Medicare, Medicaid, consumer protection, environmental laws, energy policy, American involvement in foreign wars.”
South Coast Rep Artistic Director Marc Masterson will direct the play, with Hugo Armstrong playing LBJ and Larry Bates as Martin Luthur King Jr. “I’m certainly happy South Coast Rep is doing this,” says Schenkkan, who has written a companion play, “The Great Society,” about the LBJ years that followed. “I’ve never had a production at South Coast before, and I’m excited that this will be the first and, hopefully, not the last.” :: scr.org