“All the Way” drops its audience into 1960s America, right after the death of John F. Kennedy, one of our nation’s most beloved presidents. We follow Lyndon Baines Johnson following this horrific event, and during the period of his first year, a year with focused on fighting the horrible treatment of African Americans, and his attempt to bring about change, despite the protestations of his friends in the South. It’s harrowing and heartfelt, given just the right amount of humor thanks to Johnson’s enormous personality and charisma, and the crisp script by Robert Schenkkan. With the help of a skilled cast, and the fine guiding hand of Dave Steakley, Zach Theatre creates a powerful, professional production of this Tony nominee.
One of the play’s biggest successes is its portrayal of LBJ. Charismatic, fast-talking, and brash, LBJ was a Southern boy through and through, and Steve Vivovich takes on this role with gusto. From the moment he walks on to stage, he seems to be possessed by Johnson himself, bringing his swagger and charm in a very remarkable way. He doesn’t pull any punches, cursing up a storm and exerting his influence with the best of them. It never seems one note, however, as there are moments of true sensitivity mixed in, particularly one late in the play, during a final vote in the Senate over his Civil Rights Bill, in which Vivovich removes his armor, both literally and figuratively, showing the heart and emotion within.
Melvin Abston provides the second performance of Martin Luther King this year, and though it may lack the swagger present in Marc Pouhé’s performance in “The Mountaintop” earlier this year, what he does bring is authority. When Abston walks on to stage, his presence demands your attention, even as the large stage is filled with actors. His performance never feels forced or strained, and is full of dimension, showing King as more than just a speech-giving holy man, but as a man, with his own desires, and his own needs, and his own methods for getting things done.
Garry Peters is one of Austin’s best character actors, an actor who may not get as much attention as many other actors in town, but who pulls out amazing performance with almost every at bat. With his performance as Senator Richard Russell, he may give his best performance yet, as a Southern politician who’s forced between friendship and keeping his Southern values. Peters captures this balance with skill, bringing his trademark grump, while tempering it with some real affection towards LBJ. It’s a surprisingly sensitive performance, one that allows Peters to show real heart, and a range that’s hard to find.
“All the Way” run roughly three hours, and at time it does feel its length, but there’s never a time when you’re thoroughly engrossed in what’s happening on stage. Vivovich seems born to play the part of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his supporting cast shines in equal measure throughout. It’s a thought-provoking picture of one of the nation’s most turbulent periods, and how with gumption, wit, and perseverance, a powerful man was able to at least help Americans take a large step forward towards equality.
“All the Way” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through May 10th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach Theatre’s website at zachtheatre.org