In the midst of a summer theatre season full of surprises, "The Great Society" takes the cake.
As performed by the Lyric Repertory Company, "The Great Society" is a chronicle of the downfall of U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s. But this production is no mere history lesson. The script by renowned playwright Robert Shenkkan allows Lyric audiences to be a fly on the wall of the Oval Office as an idealistic, newly elected president sets out to fight a war on poverty and racial injustice, but ends up fighting futile battles in the jungles of Vietnam, the streets of America's cities and in the hall of Congress instead.
"The Great Society" is performed as a staged reading, sans the Lyric Company's usual costumes and sets. The show's large cast just reads their lines as they assume the roles of the major historical figures of the era. Artistic director Richie Call fills the central role of Johnson himself. Lyric veteran Toby Tropper plays Vice President Hubert Humphrey; Jeremy Keith Hunter portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Eric Van Tielen takes on Sen. Bobby Kennedy; and Paul Michael Sandberg plays Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
The lack of typical theatrical conventions tends to tightly shift the focus of attention to Shenkkan’s fiercely literate script. The performers’ lines in “The Great Society” are a mixture of fact and fiction, with verbatim quotes taken from public records blended with what might have been said behind closed doors. Those candid moments emphasize that the Lyric actors are portraying real people, not the paragons too often found in the pages of history.
The 1960s may seem like ancient history nowadays, but “The Great Society” also reminds us that it was an era not unlike our own present day. It was a time of social and political upheaval; of bitter conflict between the White House and Congress; of unrelenting confrontation between authority figures and the media; of a widening gulf between young and old; and of racial tensions. Sound familiar?
In addition to providing a memorable evening of entertainment, “The Great Society” also seems to invite its audiences to remember that the best-laid plans are those that most often go awry and that unintended consequences are those most likely to linger forever.
Additional performances of “The Great Society” are slated at the Black Box Theatre on the USU campus through July 30.