LOGAN — The Great Society, written by Robert Shenkkan, is presented by Lyric Repertory Company as a staged reading, directed by Joseph Tisa. As stated in the playbill, the Great Society was a set of domestic programs launched by democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964-65. The main goal was the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. My personal excuse of not knowing this fact is being born in 1979, but I am also a bit embarrassed about not having knowledge of this part of American history. The course of this staged reading covered important things such as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of MLK Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the beginning of Richard Nixon’s administration.
The part of LBJ was read by Richie Call, who also serves as artistic director for the Lyric. Call did a terrific job of portraying Johnson, and I found myself both empathetic, curious, and puzzled by the choices of the historic Johnson, wondering at what motivated his leanings in the war that I knew to be a failure in the eyes of many and in his role in civil rights, something that people of my generation look back on with questions of why not more and sooner? Call played the part in a way that opened my eyes to both the challenges and the choices that must have plagued the president at the time while still showing the deep-seeded prejudice of the age.
Another stand-out was Jeremy Keith Hunter, tasked with taking on the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There are certain characters throughout history that must be a great challenge to play because of their significance within the importance of the American Story, and King is certainly front and center in such a list. Hunter was up to the task and excelled in creating a character that showed the complicated path that King walked, guiding a people that struggled to maintain the desire that King had for peaceful protest while seeing the reality that no one seemed to listen. Hunter’s performance stole the show.
I was also impressed with some of the choices of the ensemble as a whole. Though this was a staged reading, with the cast having scripts in hand and seated and with no staged blocking, some of the chorus chants had natural rhythmic movements, such as pounding of chests when they repeated the lyrics to the song “Amazing Grace,” which was moving and brought tears to my eyes. Having seen many Lyric Repertory shows this season, I recognized that almost all of the repertory players were represented in this reading, and the talent represented in this reading was immense.
The writing by Shenkkan was strong, and the story is a good one to be told. The presidency of Johnson covers a complicated time of US history, from the death of JFK through the Vietnam war, civil rights movement, and the setting of the stage that led to the scandal of Nixon. However, the show did feel a bit long and could maybe have benefited from a second intermission between acts two and three. Understanding that the show is politically- and subject-matter heavy, I was not expecting something light going in; however the heaviness was weighing on me as the show came to a close. Additionally, the comparison of today’s political turmoil was not lost on me, and the closing line, which I will not spoil for those who can get to see the final showing July 30th at the Lyric or perhaps when it opens on Broadway this fall, was all too apropos.
What struck me most as I left the theatre was a line by one of the characters working with Dr. King, who said people resort to violence when they feel they have no other option. I am glad that we in Utah have a strong theatre community so that we can have other options than violence to express sentiments and frustrations. I am glad places like Lyric Repertory Theatre Company have taken opportunities to read new works and stage new plays on their way to Broadway and to expose Utah audiences to these stories. I am hopeful it helps spread the awareness of the ideas in the country and opens eyes to the challenges the community currently faces. The show is a call to remember that many people call America home even if they look or act differently and that while civil rights was 50+ years ago, the fight might still be going on today. The cast and crew of The Great Society gave an interesting look at what could be a great play, and I will be interested to watch it progress to Broadway this fall.