Lyndon Johnson was a huge asshole. He invaded everyone’s personal space—if he wanted something from you, he would put his hand inside your suit jacket and roam around in there while his face would hover a lick’s distance from your cheek and his other hand would rub your shoulders or tug on your earlobe or squeeze other body parts. The discomfort was like a drug to him. The petty power games he played with everyone in his orbit ranged from the subtle (he’d never give a compliment without following it with a little personal barb) to the loud and clear (he would demand that reporters and legislators stand in the bathroom and talk to him while he was taking a shit). He bought an amphibious car seemingly just for the sake of a repeated prank: When an unwitting rube was sitting in the passenger seat, Johnson would pretend to lose control of the car and drive straight into a body of water, just to watch the fear on his passenger’s face and then laugh at their confusion when the car gracefully floated along the water.

Of course, assholes get stuff done. Johnson ruled the Senate with an iron fist, and then, when he became president, he capitalized on the national grief following President Kennedy’s assassination to launch the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the latter half of the 20th century, into law. In so doing, he reshaped America.

All the Way is about the passage of that act and its repercussions, and Robert Schenkkan’s script is undeniably a modern masterpiece. It helps that Johnson, with his outsize personality, is probably the modern president who lends himself most ably to Shakespearean-style tragedy, but Schenkkan also transforms the political convolutions of the time into something even poli-sci neophytes can understand. He condenses these figures to their Jungian archetypes. Strom Thurmond’s defection from Dixiecrat to full-blown Republican, for example, is presented as the betrayal of a minor general on the evening of an empire-endangering battle. J. Edgar Hoover is the king’s duplicitous counsel. Martin Luther King Jr. is an allied monarch with his own kingdom to attend to. Schenkkan’s script renders one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history as something timeless, and Johnson as the only man who can hold it together, at great personal cost.

Jack Willis has been playing Johnson in All the Way for a while now; he originated the role at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. (Bryan Cranston played Johnson during the play’s Tony Award–winning Broadway run.) And he brings some of that lived-in feel to the role at the Rep; he’ll occasionally fumble a line not because he’s unfamiliar with the text, but maybe because he’s a little too familiar with it. But he brings an undeniable intelligence to the part. His Johnson isn’t as handsy as he should be, but he’s absolutely interested in playing politics at all times. In the first scene, Johnson has just been sworn in as president and is on the plane back to Washington, DC, talking about the toll that Kennedy’s passing will take on the nation. He’s aspiring to grandiloquence, but then he stops and snaps to his wife, Lady Bird, that she has to fix her lipstick. It’s a savage snarl that comes from nowhere and recedes immediately, and Willis sells it well. Johnson doesn’t see himself as a terrible bully; he thinks he’s giving his everything to history, and he can’t stand the thought that everyone around him isn’t sacrificing as much as he is.

Every stage interpretation of Johnson is bound to be different, of course, and what Willis specializes in is Johnson’s double-sidedness. One moment, he’s vowing to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt” when it comes to social programs that help the poor and minorities, the next he’s bitching about a “nigra comedian” who makes fun of him, or dropping the N-bomb left and right, or trying to pal around with a potential ally by talking about scoring some “pussy,” or telling a folksy story about a rattlesnake. He’s somehow entirely unpredictable and also a master of self-control. He knows everyone’s weaknesses and he understands how to manipulate whatever he wants out of whomever he wants, but he has to do it flamboyantly so people know they’ve been played. He can’t be subtle about his machinations, he has to autograph the deal with a flourish, and it’s that spark of personality that gets him into trouble.

At first, I thought Willis didn’t pay enough attention to Johnson’s gaping neediness, the huge black hole at the heart of the man. But then I saw that Schenkkan’s script reveals the neediness almost as a plot point, in a dark night of the president’s soul in the second act. It’s a strange decision—even in archival clips, you can see Johnson desperate for attention and approval at the lamest of press conferences—but Willis successfully turns the most powerful man in the world into a petulant toddler, whining about a few nasty critics even as he enjoys abnormally high popularity poll numbers for a modern president.

Seattle Repertory Theatre treats All the Way like a blockbuster, spending what appears to be a hell of a lot of cash on every aspect of its lavish production. Christopher Acebo’s set design for All the Way—the same set the Oregon Shakespeare Company used for its original staging—is meant to evoke the floor of Congress, with burnished wood viewing boxes ringing the back and sides of the stage. It’s an astute choice—the design not only looks political, but also reinforces the idea that Johnson is being watched from all angles at all times. All that onstage seating means the actual space for actors is limited, but it’s used to great effect: A trapdoor in the center of the stage used to raise and lower the president’s desk doubles as the shallow grave of a young man killed for the color of his skin. As Johnson sits in the Oval Office discussing the crime, a gravedigger is shoveling not five feet away from him. There are almost 20 actors in the cast, but clever staging makes it feel like there are five times as many working in the production. The almost three-hour play must be exhausting to put on—there’s a gospel church number, a political convention, a Nobel Prize ceremony, and dozens of other scenes—but it feels effortless.

For the most part, the cast is very strong, with some cartoonish lapses. Richard Elmore’s J. Edgar Hoover is an appropriately curious mix of sinister plotting and craven obsequiousness, though he occasionally falls into caricatured villainy in the scenes when he plots his vengeance on Martin Luther King Jr. As Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s lapdog and aspiring second-in-command, Peter Frechette brings a sweaty Jack Lemmon feel to the character, but every once in awhile, his broadness needs some reining in. Half the time, through her extravagant accent, it’s impossible to understand what the hell Terri McMahon’s Lady Bird Johnson is saying, although she doesn’t have much to do here anyway; this is not a play with showcase roles for women. The biggest foil to Johnson is Kenajuan Bentley’s Martin Luther King Jr., and he easily holds his own against Willis’s practiced gravitas, especially in a scene where King has to consider a compromise that could score him political points but would leave his followers feeling enraged and ignored. The two men need each other, but they also have different goals. That friction reaches a satisfying conclusion in the final scenes of the play.

During All the Way’s intermission, you’ll likely overhear a lot of people announcing with a self-congratulatory air that they see a lot of parallels between the play and the America of 2014. They’ll say that President Obama’s situation is very similar to President Johnson’s. And it is. Kind of. We’re still dealing with some of the same issues today; the Supreme Court recently rolled back voting rights laws to something much closer to the America we see at the beginning of All the Way, intentionally alienating minority voters from polling stations. But there’s no drama in politics today the way there was back in Johnson’s day, when politicians were friendly even as they were stabbing each other in the ribs. It’s hard to picture anyone 50 years from now writing a play about the impasse between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner. Any first-year improv player could tell you that there’s nothing interesting about a bunch of people saying “no” all the time. recommended