“All the Way” peels back political layers, examines the messy means to an end goal

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre stages
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre stages "All the Way."

Political fatigue may be setting in around the country as many tire of polarized conversations that seem to go nowhere but down. Social media allows people to be more ‘involved’ in politics than ever before, but without true access to the long-term, behind-the-scenes political processes most just get to argue about the remote tips of the icebergs, the end results that are simplified in message for public platforms.

The latest play presented by Grand Rapids Civic Theatre reminds us that much is left unseen and swirling under the surface, the complicated means to get to the end results. Maybe this is what we need to break our fatigue and get us back talking to each other, that understanding better the complicated and often less than righteous space in the means will help us, together, produce more positive ends.

In any event, check your fatigue at the door when you go see All the Way, the Tony Award Winning play by Robert Schenkkan, in its premiere community theatre production at GRCT.

It’s political drama from start to finish, opening with the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson assumes office, taking an intermission at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and ending on the eve of the general election in November of that year.

Yet that is just the simple framework that this play hangs upon, we all know these major events through our high school history lessons. Less known are the way many other historical names, places and events—sometimes at great odds with each other but nonetheless part of the political process—intertwined to bring about those milestones in American history.

You’ll start to get the picture when you see the sheer size of the cast. Scenic designer David Len and lighting designer Mark Neumann met the challenge to accommodate the 27 individual actors representing some 50 persons involved in the political struggle with a smart and simple set that changed more through lighting and projections than by major shifts in set pieces.

We travel effortlessly through the oval office of LBJ, to various hotel rooms as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traverses the country holding meetings and public speeches, to the halls of Congress and more as we meet civil rights leaders, media personalities, family members, senators and representatives, governors, students, staff, and others whose efforts and influence made their mark on the political decisions of the day.

It’s a necessary visual to have them all on stage at once, it drives the point home of the multiple moving parts that must somehow be cajoled, forced, persuaded, traded, or otherwise compelled to move in a general direction toward an end goal.

Director Bruce Tinker worked with a talented cast that allowed distinct personalities to momentarily pierce through the cacophony and illustrate the notable individuals involved, with strong performances by Melita Travis Johnson as Fannie Lou Hamer, Liam Tichelaar as Gov. George Wallace, and G.M. (Bud) Thompson as Sen. Richard Russell, among many others.

Against this roiling turmoil, the big picture is kept clearly in focus by two key historical giants: President Lyndon Baines Johnson played by Jon March, and The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. played by Eddie Stephens.

It’s a powerhouse performance by March who is on stage with dialogue for nearly the entire show, matched by Stephens in the initially subdued but increasingly intense buildup to the final, powerful split soliloquy that reveals the stark differences yet common humanity between the two men.

Be aware, this show is more suitable for teens and adults as the behind-the-scenes language can be rough, especially when staying true to the official record, memoirs and verified recollection of the people depicted.

All the Way runs through Jan. 28 at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

*Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

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