There's no way to ask or answer this without sounding disingenuous, so I'm just going to dive right in: When the news is filled with grotesque images of police officers beating and killing black citizens in real time, what is the appropriate way to look at a work of art that depicts police officers beating and killing black citizens on a stage? Does a 1:1 correlation with the inestimably worse events going on in the streets mean the art is (a) nobly doing its job by holding a mirror to society, (b) a current-events coincidence, or (c) obscene?
This question lodged in my mind many times during The Great Society, the new Seattle Rep production of Robert Schenkkan's mammoth, three-hour sequel to All The Way, his mammoth, three-hour play about the Johnson administration, but never more stickily than in the riot scenes. Like nearly every other physical facet of this show, these balletic tableaux of civil-rights violence in Selma, Skokie, and Watts familiar from black-and-white news footage are master classes in stagecraft. But for all their imaginative economy, they share a more troubling trait with the rest of the play, which is a failure to advance new insights about the turbulent period and characters beyond simply depicting them. It kept making me wonder if the brutality being so deftly aestheticized on the stage—including the political brutality that goes on in LBJ's Oval Office—wasn't ultimately a means to retreat from truths that are harder to swallow.
Not to suggest The Great Society isn't intelligent and complex. Nor can there be any mistaking the production's good liberal intentions (the opening-night performance featured several applause breaks for crowd-pleasing lines like "Nobody works harder than teachers"). But like the president whose moment it strives to capture, the play suffers from its ambition to contain too much history in too little time. Of course, "time" is relative, since three hours has never felt like too little time to be sitting in a theater seat. But length isn't the issue. Breadth is—specifically, a breadth of narrative scope that puts a deadly expository burden on characters we already know (forcing lines like "Your excellent education bill directed millions of dollars to chronically underfunded black schools but Mayor Daley sent those monies to white schools" into the mouth of Martin Luther King Jr.) and rightfully expect more from, thus sapping these potent scenes of their intrinsic drama. History's obdurate refusal to be contained within narrative brackets means that a playwright has to impose them, and The Great Society seems hell-bent on getting it all in, from Selma to Saigon, from Kennedy to King, and from Hoover to Humphrey to McNamara to Mills to Daley to Wallace to Nixon... and everyone in between. This material doesn't feel like the stuff of one megalong play, or even two; it cries out for 10.
If the overreaching diminishes the dramatic power, it yields rewards in the areas of design and Bill Rauch's endlessly kinetic direction. Christopher Acebo's set is a masterpiece of elegance and versatility (particularly when its artful collapse begins to mirror LBJ's diminishing control, and the mounting American berserk in the streets). The same can be said of the ensemble cast, who nimbly slip from character to character, often without exiting the stage. Best of all are the projected images, designed by Shawn Sagady, that form the background. At one powerhouse moment, a riot of white protesters roils in the Illinois suburbs, their signs filling the upstage screen. Jack Willis as LBJ steps onto a platform, backlit by hate speech, and frowns down at the turmoil, the true magnitude of America's division—and his role in fomenting it—finally dawning on him.
But for all its dexterous ambition, The Great Society feels more like a synopsis of its era, dotted by powerful moments, than an illumination of it. There's more gravitas in the mounting numbers of dead and wounded American soldiers in Vietnam superimposed on the scene-setting backdrops than in LBJ's folksy soliloquies. And of course there would be. We know too much about this story going in. It's not a fair fight. Willis sweats blood in one of the most demanding roles you could imagine an actor taking on, and creates a memorable central figure... who just isn't LBJ. To blame this on the evident lack of physical resemblance is probably facile (though it doesn't help that Willis actually looks more like J. Edgar Hoover than does the actor playing Hoover). Rather, it's because the play's massiveness demands a tragic hero on a mythic scale, and Johnson doesn't fit that mold. Though his presidency was sandwiched between a King Arthur and a Richard III, LBJ's proportions and contradictions were the opposite of mythic. We spend the whole play watching a deeply human, deeply ambitious guy with good ideas and a mean streak whose hubris consists of believing he can handle whatever's coming by gaming the system as he always has. By the time he figures out that he's already been crushed by history, our sympathy is exhausted. There's no more room for pity and fear because the aftermath of the play's events are still happening all around us in real time.