The Great Society: 50 Years Later, More Relevant Than Ever

With whit, honesty and a lot of heart, Zach Theatre’s production of the The Great Society is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some significant moments of the 1960s.

The marches in Selma, the Vietnam War, and the ’68 election are decades in the past, but what happens on stage feels eerily similar to today’s political environment. You can see the show at the Topfer Theater through March 5.

Writer Robert Schenkkan, built The story around President Lyndon Bains Johnson (Steve Voinovich) whose decisions and aspirations drive the narrative. At the start of the play, Johnson’s clout and popularity allow him to make deals and twist arms to move his War on Poverty agenda through Congress. By the end of his term, LBJ finds his principles and intentions twisted to the point he doesn’t know how things went so wrong or what he could do to make them better.

Voinovich and Washington capture the voice and humanity of these historic figures, but theirs are only two of the great performances that keep this play moving

The same can be said for Dr. Martin Luther King (Cecil Washington Jr.) who goes to LBJ to advocate for the Voting Rights Act and request federal protection for protesters. His success in the South leads him to take his fight to Chicago and L.A, where his methods are not so effective or welcome.

Voinovich and Washington capture the voice and humanity of these historic figures, but theirs are only two of the great performances that keep this play moving.

The other actors in this very talented ensemble play multiple roles. Each does an excellent job changing their physicality and vocal expression to invoke and distinguish the real life people they embody.

The riot and protest scenes are visceral and cinematic.

Although it feels like a slight not to list all of them, a few portrayals are especially moving. Vincent Hooper delivers a stirring rendition of the Stokely Carmichael’s speech where he gave up on the non-violent philosophy as a path to equal rights. In Nash Ferguson’s telling, the story of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a peaceful protester who is shot and denied medical attention, resounds as a cautionary tale from the grave.

Michelle Alexander represents the legion of black women who struggle and hold families together during trying times

James Davies’ portrayals of George Wallace, Mayor Daley and especially Richard Nixon feel like premonitions of things to come, if we don’t learn from the lessons of history. With poise and strength whenever she graces the stage, Michelle Alexander represents the legion of black women who struggle and hold families together during trying times, including Coretta Scott King.

Director Dave Steakley’s continues to impress with his creative staging. The riot and protest scenes are visceral and cinematic. The a cappella protest songs fill the theater and grab your heart, heightening the intensity and helping to ground the emotion of the event.

The set design by Cliff Simon is as efficient as a tiny house, with platforms appearing and disappearing as needed to represent hotel beds or daises in various locals. The actors move from scene to scene carrying set pieces as needed to change venue or time. A backdrop incorporates wood from a burned church and is used to great effect to evoke both the devastation of arson and the threat of violence. Photos of Vietnam, the children LBJ taught, Rosa parks and protesters also help to ground the play in time.

At a little over three hours (including two intermissions) the play is long and wordy, but it brings with it a lot of information and understanding that gives context to our lives today.


The Great Society runs through March 5th on stage at Zach Scott Theatre.

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