Love or loathe LBJ, you can't deny that his presidency has all the towering elements of a classic Shakespearean tragedy.

Love or loathe LBJ, you can't deny that his presidency has all the towering elements of a classic Shakespearean tragedy.

"The Great Society," written by Robert Schenkkan, which had its premiere Sunday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre, is the sequel to Schenkkan's "All the Way." That play premiered at OSF in 2012, moved to Broadway in February 2014 and won this year's Tony Award for Best Play.

If "All the Way" was a paean to Lyndon B. Johnson's consummate political skills, "The Great Society" is a dramatic lesson in power, morality and hubris.

Johnson was convinced that his ends — his far-reaching domestic agenda and his re-election in 1968 — justified his means. He was confident that he could persuade, cajole or bully people and events to go his way, as he'd done throughout his political career. But, as in Greek tragedy, events proved impossible for even a skilled manipulator to control. Harsh reality checkmated the master, humiliated him and ultimately crushed him.

Schenkkan and the production's director, OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, had a daunting task with this play. How do you recount four turbulent years in America's history and at the same time create a riveting dramatic character arc for your protagonist? Schenkkan's swift-paced vignettes and Rauch's crisp direction deftly keep the action moving over three hours and through three acts.

Ultimately, Schenkkan and Rauch are kinder to LBJ than reality or history. "The Great Society" takes the focus off the man's ruthlessness, anger and vindictiveness and gives LBJ a sense of self-awareness and self-loathing that may owe more to dramatic impact than verisimilitude.

Jack Willis reprises his powerful performance as LBJ. This isn't the brash, outrageous and nasty Johnson of "All the Way." This is a man who starts out supremely self-confident, becomes beleaguered and pugnacious as his will is thwarted and ends up with an epiphany that, more than likely, the real Lyndon Johnson never experienced.

"The Great Society" assumes at least some knowledge of recent history. If you lived through the '60s, the play's events are a hard-hitting trip into memory. If you are younger, the production's visual projections of contemporary photos and newsfilm, documenting people, places and, especially, scenes from the era's shocking racial violence, will hit you in the gut.

The principal players of the era are all here: Sen. Everett Dirksen (Michael J. Hume), the Republican Senate minority leader, alternately LBJ's ally and enemy; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Mark Murphey), maneuvering Johnson into deeper and deeper involvement in the quagmire; Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette), whom LBJ alternately encouraged or abused according to whim; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (Denis Arndt), playing politics and wielding graft as usual as his town goes up in flames; J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Elmore), determined to bring down what he considered a subversive Civil Rights movement; Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Jonathan Haugen), a strutting bantam bigot; Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (Danforth Comins), brother of the murdered president and former attorney general, lying in wait to bring LBJ down; and, of course, the smarmy and politically cynical Richard Nixon (Haugen).

Kenajuan Bentley's tortured Martin Luther King Jr. is the companion in tragedy to Johnson, as an anguished King watches his vision of racial equality achieved through nonviolence fade with the rise of the Black Power movement led by Stokely Carmichael (Wayne T. Carr).

Tyrone Wilson and Kevin Kenerly are wonderfully effective as King's allies, Ralph Abernathy and Bob Moses.

Lyndon Johnson changed this country profoundly. He was responsible for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Great Society initiative and the War on Poverty. His legislative programs created Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, the Head Start pre-school program and the Job Corps. At the same time, the consequences of his escalation of an American presence in a foreign civil war still speak to the arguments surrounding American involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

"The Great Society" is a reminder of where this country was socially and politically in the '60s and why we are re-fighting the same battles with much the same rhetoric today.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at