In December, Brandon Potter jumped at the chance to do something that would intimidate most actors: Learn Shakespeare’s second-biggest role, Richard III, in a short time frame and with minimal rehearsals for Dallas’ popular Shakespeare in the Bar series.
That turned out to be a good exercise for another mammoth role he’d have to learn in even less time: Lyndon Baines Johnson, in Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way. It opens this weekend at Dallas’ Wyly Theatre, presented as a co-production by Dallas Theater Center and Houston’s Alley Theatre. All the Way played in Houston from Jan. 29 through Feb. 21.
Of course, such well-established resident theaters give actors more than four days to learn a role (they rehearse for at least a month, and many roles are cast well ahead of that).
But in the first leg of this production in Houston, in the week before preview performances, the actor originally cast as LBJ became ill, and within days it was clear he wouldn’t be well enough to return anytime soon.
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The theaters’ artistic directors, DTC’s Kevin Moriarty (who directs All the Way) and the Alley’s Gregory Boyd, went into panic mode.
“By the time we looked around and we didn’t have the role set four days before tech [rehearsal], we tried to find someone who had done the role before,” says Moriarty. “But because it’s a large play requiring 17 actors, very few theaters had done it.
“Bryan Cranston wasn’t available,” he adds, laughing, referring to the actor who won a Tony Award in 2014 for playing the role on Broadway.
The play focuses on LBJ’s first years in the White House and the events leading up to his signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Cranston will reprise the role for the HBO film version due out this year.
Potter, a member of DTC’s Brierley Resident Acting Company, was playing George Wallace and others. Boyd suggested him for LBJ, but there was a concern. Potter, a Texas native and Southern Methodist University grad, is in his 30s, a least two decades too young for the part.
“Gregory said the Alley’s makeup department would love that challenge,” Moriarty says.
For Potter, taking the role was a no-brainer.
“When do you ever get an opportunity like this?” he asks. “Rarely do things like this fall into your lap.”
Reviews in Houston were enthusiastic. Now the production, with its mix of Dallas and Houston actors, comes to the Wyly Theatre, with opening night Saturday. Even before it opened, the run had been extended a week, now closing April 3.
Not bad for a three-hour drama about a monumental era of American politics.
Moriarty and Boyd didn’t plan All the Way to run in an election year, but “boy, oh, boy, it has a lot more resonance than I would have expected,” Moriarty says of the play’s relevance to what’s happening in the current campaign.
“What is the quality that we expect a leader to most embody?” Moriarty asks. “Do we want them to be pure in their ideology, to make no compromise whatsoever, and either win or lose with their hands clean and unstained? In the play there are characters that argue that.”
“You have George Wallace on one side and Stokely Carmichael on the other,” he adds. Other characters in the play include Martin Luther King Jr., Lady Bird Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and J. Edgar Hoover.
All the Way premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, and Seattle Repertory Theatre later paired it with Schenkkan’s follow-up play, The Great Society, which goes into LBJ’s Vietnam years.
Cranston stepped into the role of LBJ in the 2013 production at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and carried it through the Broadway transfer. The show picked up a Tony for Best Play.
The title All the Way refers to the slogan for LBJ’s 1964 campaign. In the play, we see the moment when the country’s two modern political parties switch on issues of race. The Republicans, long proud to be known as the party of Abraham Lincoln, are at odds with the Southern Democrats, or Dixiecrats, who are still holding onto Jim Crow.
“There was a real possibility that the [Democratic] party could have split, but they just reversed positions,” Potter says.
Shawn Hamilton, a Houston native, plays Martin Luther King Jr., a role he has performed in other plays.
“It shows King working strategically with the politicians and how they negotiate and counter the moves by Johnson, and how the two of them work together,” he says. “I hope this play builds an excitement for the political process and the desire to engage, because that’s how you get stuff done.”
That, and another important part of the political process.
“I hope the audience understands the importance of compromise,” Potter adds. “I hope people can see real politicians doing things, and to do that you have to compromise. … But at talkbacks after the show, we hear of lot of ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ ”
Many have compared All the Way to the history plays of the great dramatist.
“When I first saw it I felt like Robert Schenkkan had written one of the first Shakespearean history plays in maybe 100 years,” says Moriarty. “I compare it to Henry IV partly because Johnson reminds me of Falstaff.”
There’s also some of Richards the second and third.
“There’s an internal turmoil in LBJ,” Moriarty adds. “What drives these individuals to fight these battles to get their hands really dirty and fight to make change? In the play he makes the case.
“There’s also a massive, gaping need to be loved; it drives Johnson to push all these advancements for the country, with the hope that winning a landslide election will result in soothing those demons that have been chasing him his whole life from his beginnings as an impoverished kid in Texas.”
And it resembles a Shakespearean history play in other ways.
“It is structurally like a history play because it explores these people in their halls, and in the writing there is rhetoric and antipathy,” he says. “You’re doing this and then you’re going to say something that’s the opposite of that; it gets you thinking.”
It certainly has for an actor who, in just a few months, has taken on two great history play roles.
All the Way
- Saturday through April 3 (previews Thursday and Friday)
- Wyly Theatre, Dallas
- 214-880-0202; www.dallastheatercenter.org