The History Theatre is celebrating its 40th year of producing plays — almost all new — that explore the heritage of the Upper Midwest.
It is, then, a bit off the beam for the St. Paul company to open this momentous season with a play focused on the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. In “All the Way,” Playwright Robert Schenkkan targeted LBJ’s year from the Kennedy assassination to a landslide 1964 election. “All the Way” won Tonys as best play and best performance (by Bryan Cranston). HBO produced a 2016 film.
Well. Good things happen when you mix it up every 40 years or so and History Theatre has scored big with “All the Way,” which opened Saturday. Schenkkan’s play is both a dense, high-stakes history lesson on that fateful year and a riveting look at political intrigue.
The playwright throws open the doors of the Washington sausage factory and rather than repel us, the odor is sweetly compelling. Forget the stupid Twitter and cable-news wars of today; these machinations mattered.
Like the best nonfiction, this muscular play cloaks itself in the epic power of myth as Johnson, Sen. Hubert Humphrey and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. coax Southern Democrats toward the historic change in civil rights.
At the center of the History Theatre’s production (directed briskly and confidently by Ron Peluso) is actor Pearce Bunting’s volcanic portrayal of Johnson. He does not mimic LBJ’s Texas drawl, but Bunting’s physicality — both in look and manner — is extraordinary.
Paranoid, fearful of failure, insecure and confident at the same time, LBJ’s ravenous ego drove him to desperate measures. He truly believed in civil rights as a national good, yet his political world was all about him. At one point he laments the deaths of activists in Mississippi. Why? The incident might complicate his drive for the 1964 nomination.
Bunting, an intuitive actor wise both in intellect and emotion, exhales all this in a big, sweaty performance. It’s the best role he’s been given since coming to the Twin Cities seven years ago and he rewards Peluso for the choice.
Peluso draws other fine performances in this production, which plays out with most of the cast (18 actors) seated in a circle around a spare representation of the Oval Office (Rick Polenek’s design) with projections on a back screen. Andrew Erskine Wheeler has the high forehead and the clipped cadences of Humphrey. Peter Thomson is stentorian as Sen. Richard Russell, LBJ’s mentor and friend.
Shawn Hamilton is solid gold as King — a role he played in “Appomattox” at the Guthrie several years ago. Ron Collier and Jamila Anderson make the most of their moments as civil rights icons Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer. Joe Nathan Thomas also deserves a nod for playing Roy Wilkins.
Lady Bird Johnson might have been a thankless role, but Jennifer Blagen shows a steely and confident side to the first lady. Really, there isn’t a bad performance here.
What a great way for History Theatre to start its 40th season. “All the Way” is not about Minnesota and it’s not a new play. But it is so worth seeing.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.