“The Great Society" spans the final years of LBJ's presidency from 1965-1968 and it offers up a fascinating fly-on-the-wall glimpse into his bustling White House during the Vietnam era. Among the more than 30 characters featured are Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whom we discover was not the only great man with a big dream.
The Great Society was Johnson's dream, a series of domestic programs and policies that aimed to end poverty and social injustice. And so, he joined forces with Dr. King to pass the Voting Rights Act along with the establishment of Medicare, urban renewal, education initiatives, environmental conservation and so much more.
It's fun to watch as he wheels and deals, shrewdly manipulating adversaries to his side, and we cheer him on as he fights the good fight for civil rights and social justice.
But as LBJ was quick to discover, his good intentions paved a road to hell because in politics there is no progress without compromise; and there's always a price to pay for any success.
With the quagmire of Vietnam becoming ever more expensive and the death toll rising, Johnson was forced to abandon much of his good will efforts, changing his priorities to basic survival.
In the end, politics as usual cost him dearly. Amid mounting failures, he gave up and didn't even bother running for re-election.
The large cast consists of Broadway A-listers in multiple roles, among them:
Bryce Pinkham channels Bobby Kennedy; Marc Kudisch stands out as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley; Gordon Clapp as the monomaniacal FBI director J. Edgar Hoover; David Garrison as Richard Nixon; and Grantham Coleman, most convincing as a frustrated but ever determined Dr. King.
LBJ was a tall, imposing man who spoke with a slow Texas drawl. While Brian Cox doesn't match the part physically, he is a phenomenal actor capturing the essence of the firebrand, barking at friend and foe alike for more than 2 and a half hours. He’s a ferocious political animal with a big heart, personally writing condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers while turning against his closest allies.
If the play feels overstuffed, it’s still an important history lesson. Schenkkan calls it a tragedy. But the real tragedy is that if we don’t pay enough attention, history is hellbent on repeating itself.