How you approach "All the Way," the socio-political drama currently on stage at Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre, probably depends largely on your age.
If you were a pre-teen at the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination, you're more likely to find it an absorbing look at characters you remember and events you understood only superficially. You'll find it filling in blanks from your adolescent understanding, answering questions you never thought to ask.
If you were older than that, and politically aware, you might be struck most by the complexity of Lyndon Johnson's personality, his intelligence and acumen at maneuvering through one of the most difficult political eras of the past century.
Younger, and you'd be unaware of most of the events and dramatis personae, and you might see it as purely historical drama.
Anyone of any age is likely to find the play often fascinating, but sometimes plodding. It's certainly intensely ambitious, and ends up coming reasonably close to achieving its goals.
"All the Way" won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014. The Asolo Rep production is directed by Sophia Knapp, who was the associate director of the Broadway version.
The action starts as Johnson is taking over as president hours after Kennedy's assassination, and follows the first year of his presidency. Robert Schenkkan, who's best known for the Pulitzer prize-winning "The Kentucky Cycle," shows Johnson as a brilliant and shrewd political manipulator, an unpleasant man who knows people and who works Washington politics better than anyone else, and a man single-mindedly focused on passing the Civil Rights Act. Even the Vietnam War seems to be only a moderate distraction.
Steven C. Kemp's impactful set has a semi-circle of several rows of raised seats, usually occupied by Johnson's an
tagonists, framing the back half of the stage. Johnson is virtually always within the semi-circle. It's almost impossible to avoid seeing Johnson as a gladiator surrounded by a coliseum full of bloodthirsty Romans.
Nick Wyman, who's on stage for the bulk of the long show, gives a powerful and complex performance as Johnson. He evokes the president without imitating him. His LBJ is crude, repellent and heroic, with greater intellect than anyone else in his sphere. He's openly disdainful of people who are inferior to him, and almost everyone -- including his wife -- is inferior to him.
All the other characters, even Martin Luther King, are two-dimensional in Schenkkan's play. And there are lots of them. This production includes more than two dozen actors, most of them handling at least three roles. When Wyman's not on stage, there's a sense that the play is just biding its time awaiting for his return.
A lot of the performances in the smaller roles are impressive, though. A.K. Murtadha captures King's charisma, and Asolo regular David Breitbarth is appropriately despicable as George Wallace. Area actors Don Walker, Matthew McGee and Kim Stephenson are all strong in multiple roles.
Knapp's direction is sometimes heavy-handed, and the frequent presence of actors in the audience shouting toward the stage is more annoying than effective. Schenkkan's script gets bogged down in minor characters and is often dry and overly talky. But the riveting portrait of Lyndon Johnson created by writer Schenkkan, director Knapp and actor Wyman make it more than worthwhile.
Details: Through April 9, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $13.50-$77. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.