The conflict of a divided soul — personal, political and national — sears onstage in A.R.T.’s sprawling, heady and thoroughly gripping drama “All the Way,” starring Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) as President Lyndon B. Johnson. In this production that already has Broadway buzz, Cranston gives a dazzling, far-ranging and moving perf as the accidental president who took office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Robert Schenkkan doesn’t shrink from the collision of power and personality at this seismic moment of American history, filling his incident-packed narrative to the bursting point — and then some.
The play starts on the plane trip from Dallas after the shooting and continues to Johnson’s landslide election in 1964 over Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. And with Schenkkan, a Pulitzer winner for “The Kentucky Cycle,” telling his story with Texas-sized ambition, what a wild 11-month journey it is.
Cranston, who is expert at playing troubled protagonists who have lost their way, early on transitions from a moment of quiet mourning to an embrace of his manifest destiny. From that point on, his perf builds increasing power and danger like a runaway train, as he vividly shows Johnson as master manipulator, charismatic charmer, good old boy, bad old boy and, ultimately, tragic hero who changed the course of politics, his party and the nation for both good and ill.
What makes LBJ, the play and Cranston’s perf so riveting is this American sense of split identity: the do-good dreamer versus the deal-making pragmatist. (“This is not about principle,” he says. “It’s about votes.”)
The play is also ingeniously divided. The first act is a rollicking legislative drama (think “Lincoln”) centering on the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of an increasingly powerful and confident Johnson as he steers the historic Civil Rights Legislation by sheer will and foreboding awareness. “Nothing comes free,” he says tellingly. “Nothing. Not even good. Especially good.”
In the second half, things grow darker and the play expands into the epic as Johnson becomes paranoid, self-pitying and blinded by hubris as a multitude of events turn him into a nearly Shakespearean figure — minus the eloquence of language, of course, though some of his country-boy stories weave their own spell.
Helmer Bill Rauch — who last year staged the show’s premiere at his Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he is a.d. — keeps characters and narrative moving with clarity and grace in Christopher Acebo’s legislative arena setting. Shawn Sagady‘s projections also help with historic contexts and characters i.d.’s.
The solid ensemble members all take on multiple roles effectively, but standouts include Michael McKean as J. Edger Hoover, Christopher Liam Moore as LBJ’s aide Walter Jenkins, Dakin Matthews as Sen. Richard Russell, Reed Birney as Hubert Humphrey and Betsy Aidem as Lady Bird Johnson.
Even at three hours, the work has an abbreviated feel since Schenkkan takes on so many story strands, historic themes and characters that major incidents and players become reductive. But it’s all in the service of telling Johnson’s — and the country’s — grand story, and the triumphs that come at tragic costs.