In The Great Society, playwright Robert Schenkkan follows up his first play about Lyndon B. Johnson by detailing his time as president up until Nixon's election. Covering the final four years of Johnson's presidency, The Great Society is more of a history lesson on what occurred during Johnson's time in office, rather than a deep dive into the policies and movements he backed. However it's still impactful, with a clear connection to the movements that remain hot topics in today's political debates.
We can probably guess that not all of Johnson's important meetings took place in the Oval Office. Yet that is the main setting for The Great Society, on the mostly bare thrust stage of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Projections are used to transport the audience throughout many of the key events in Johnson's presidency, especially the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. And while there are some positives to be seen from Johnson's time in office, there is also violence. The effects of the Civil Rights movement are played out for the audience to see, and a count of the injured and dead Americans in Vietnam steadily rises as time passes, a constant reminder for the audience and Johnson.
Brian Cox brings everything needed to Johnson's character, showing him in both good and bad lights. Two other standouts from the cast include Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr., and Bryce Pinkham as Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Both Coleman and Pinkham are incredible in this production, and their final speeches to represents the deaths of King and Kennedy are some of the most impactful moments of the play.
In his history lesson, Schenkkan evokes the era of Johnson's presidency, with a solid reminder that it was yesterday's politics that set the stage for the policies and political landscape of today. And in the end, it's moving to watch the journey of a president through such a pivotal moment inhistory. Especially at the last line, with Nixon holding up his arms in victory, and LBJ turns to his wife, and simply says "let's go home."