Jack Willis as Lyndon Baines Johnson in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2012 production of 'All the Way.' He will reprised his role in OSF's 2014 production of 'The Great Society.'

'The Great Society' opens at OSF

The contentious and nation-changing beginning of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency dramatized by playwright Robert Schenkkan in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2012 production of "All the Way" continues in part two, "The Great Society."

The eagerly awaited sequel to Schenkkan's multiple award-winning "All the Way" examines Johnson's tumultuous second term from a landslide election of 1964.

During that term, Johnson passes some of the most important social programs in U.S. history: The 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Great Society initiative and the War on Poverty. His legislative initiatives create Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, the Head Start preschool program and Job Corps. But these years also see the brutal escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which ultimately brought down Johnson's presidency.

"The Great Society" previews at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 23, Friday, July 25, and Saturday, July 26. The play opens at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 27, and runs through Nov. 1 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre on the OSF campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland.

Schenkkan, who has "been living with LBJ for six years," says his impressions of the man have changed.

"I have a much more nuanced appreciation for his complexity," Schenkkan says. "Johnson is more tragic, more heroic and more base than I had imagined.

"He was determined to protect his domestic agenda. He saw the Vietnam War as a burdensome impediment to that agenda. His goal was to find a way to do a deal and extricate himself.

"He also was determined to shape the narrative, to protect his political position in the lead-up to the 1968 election." He saw what the war could become and plunged ahead anyway.

"Politics by its very nature forces people to compromise, to make deals in order to govern," Schenkkan says. "It's a messy, challenging business but there are limits. These two plays examine those limits."

Bill Rauch directs the OSF production. He compares the Johnson saga to Shakespeare's history cycle.

"Like 'Henry IV, Parts I and II,' Lyndon Johnson's story is so large, so important that it warrants two plays," Rauch says in a videotaped interview on the OSF website. "Each play stands on its own, but the maximum impact is to see both."

Many of the actors from "All the Way" reprise their roles in "The Great Society." Jack Willis plays LBJ, and Kenajuan Bentley plays Martin Luther King Jr.; Peter Frechette is Vice President Hubert Humphrey; Richard Elmore as J. Edgar Hoover; Wayne T. Carr is Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis; Jonathan Haugen is Gov. George Wallace and Richard Nixon; Kevin Kenerly is Bob Moses and Hosea Williams; Terri McMahon is Lady Bird Johnson; Mark Murphey is Robert McNamara and Wilbur Mills; and Tyrone Wilson is Adam Clayton Powell and Ralph Abernathy.

New to the cast are Danforth Comins as Sen. Bobby Kennedy; Michael J. Hume as Everett Dirksen and "Deke" DeLoach; Rachael Warren as Muriel Humphrey and Pat Nixon; Tobie Windham as James Bevel and Jimmie Lee Jackson; and Rex Young as Adam Walinksy and Gen. William Westmoreland.

"The Great Society" continues with the original design team for "All the Way." Scenic design is by Christopher Acebo, and costume design by Deborah M. Dryden. Paul James Prendergast provides composition and sound design with video projections by Shawn Sagady, and David Weiner joins the creative team as lighting designer.

"The Great Society" was commissioned by and co-produced with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and developed through OSF's "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle" and the Orchard Project. Following its OSF run, "The Great Society" moves to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it will play in repertory with "All the Way" from November 2014 through January 2015. Bill Rauch will direct the plays in Seattle.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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