"All the Way", "Disgraced", "The Great Society", Arena Stage, Ayad Akhtar, Jack Willis, Kyle Donnelly, LBJ, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Robert Caro, Robert Schenkhan, Tony Award Winner
Those of you who read MillersTime with some regularity may have noticed that I have not reviewed many movies of late. Because of extended grandparenting joys and duties, lots of travel, and the wonderful return of the baseball season, we have missed most of our 2016 Sunday morning Cinema Club films, the Miami Film Fest, the Jewish Film Fest, and the DC Film Fest. Plus, we haven’t even made it to a regular movie theater in what seems to be forever.
However, we have somehow seen a number of theater productions and want to draw to your attention two plays — both at Arena Stage — that might be of interest to those living in or coming to the DC metro area. The first is closing soon (May 8th), the second has just opened and will be here until May 29th.
All the Way ****
Whether you see this play as a history lesson or because you were in someway ‘around’ during this time in our country’s history, you will not be disappointed. While I have some reservations about the play (see below), none of those have to do with the accuracy of this one year in the life of LBJ.
The play opens as Lyndon Johnson becomes an “accidental president” in Nov. of 1963 with the assassination of John Kennedy. It ends one year later with the landslide election of LBJ as president in his own right.
In between, we see all aspects of this 36th president, and playwright Robert Schenkkan, director Kyle Donnelly, and actor Jack Willis get LBJ just right. For those of you who were in Washington, I suspect the LBJ you see on stage will be the one you ‘knew.’ For those of you who know some of our country’s (recent) history (especially if you have read Robert Caro’s wonderful LBJ bios), you too will recognize this LBJ. For those of you who know the name LBJ as largely an historical figure, you’ll be treated to an engaging history lesson. For all of those who see All the Way, you will leave the theater with a better understanding of the man, how our government works, of the presidency, of politics, and of a particular time in our history.
The one year in the life of LBJ captured here portrays this president at the height of his power, at the most successful time in his life. In the process, it also explores the other players of the time – Martin Luther King, Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, Lady Byrd Johnson, Walter Jenkins, Richard Russesll, Robert McNamara, and others – and how LBJ used them both to hold the country together and to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (There is a second play, The Great Society, by the same playwright that portrays LBJ as he ends his presidency and returns to Texas, a time and a result very different from the successful portrayal here.)
This 2014 Tony Award (Best Drama) is both history and biography at its best.
I did have difficulty (physically) seeing Jack Willis as LBJ. So too with most of the other actors playing their roles as historical figures. (Others have told me they had no problems with that at all.) Also, even though the Arena Stage production goes to great lengths to deal with the round stage (as opposed to a proscenium one), I found myself struggling to see and hear well when a particular actor had his or her back to me. And for me, not all of the actors were as effective or as skilled as Jack Willis in their depictions of the roles they were playing.
Nevertheless, if you can get to Arena Stage before May 8 (it will not be extended), consider doing so. The play is long (2 3/4 hours), but it nails that time in our history.
When I first read Disgraced was coming to the Arena Stage, I read about it being a Pulitzer Prize winning play (2013) and about it being the most produced play in 2015 (30 theaters around the country and the world with another 20 theaters planning to produce it also).
Then I read on Arena’s Stage website the play was “about the clash between modern culture and ancient faiths. The son of south Asian immigrants, Amir has worked hard to achieve the American Dream — complete with a successful career, a beautiful wife and $600 custom-tailored shirts. But has he removed himself too far from his roots? And when a friendly dinner party conversation rockets out of control, will the internal battle between his culture and his identity raze all that he’s worked so hard to achieve? Hailed as “terrific, turbulent, with fresh currents of dramatic electricity” (New York Times), this incendiary examination of one’s self and one’s beliefs will leave you breathless.”
So it caught my attention, but somehow I did not realize that it was about being Muslim in America. I’m glad I didn’t realize that, as I might have chosen not to see it. And that would have been a pity. I would have missed so much.
Briefly, there are five characters (two couples and a younger man) who for 90 minutes (no intermission) on one set explore who they are below and beyond what they have already become. One, Amir, is the son of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant and has passed himself off as a Indian-American who has become an extremely successful lawyer in a Jewish law firm in New York City. His wife, a White-Protestant-American is an artist who is exploring Islamic imagery in her emerging, successful work. The second couple is an African-American woman, also a lawyer in the same law firm as Amir, and her husband who is a Jewish curator from the Whitney Museum. The fifth character is the young Muslim-American nephew of Amir.
As is often the case in stories set around a dinner table, there is much below the surface, and with that as a setting, the audience usually is witness to an unraveling in varying degrees. In this case, the playwright, Ayad Akhtar*, says Disgraced is “actually a melodrama-slash thriller-slash-agitprop-slash-tragedy.”
It’s all that and much more. While it’s primary focus is on Amir and who he really is, it is also about the other characters and who they are. It is about assimilation, about ethnic and identity confusion, and about losing your religion and your community. Additionally, it is about unintended consequences and about where our discourse and rhetoric can lead us.
It’s an intriguing play that grabs you both emotionally and intellectually and deserves discussion.
If you see Disgraced and want to spend an evening over dinner discussing it with us and others who have also seen it, let me know.
(*There is an excellent interview with the playwright that perhaps is best read once you’ve seen the play.)