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LBJ comes to life in this timley yet historical Austin premiere

LBJ comes to life in this timley yet historical Austin premiere

The Great Society Zach Theatre Lyndon B Johnson LBJ Steve Vinovich
Steve Vinovich as Lyndon B. Johnson in The Great Society, playing now at the Zach Theatre. Photo by Kirk Tuck Photography

The year is 1965. The tragedy and election of 1964 has come to an end, and Lyndon B. Johnson is about to embark on an ambitious agenda that will change the country forever. His "Great Society" legislation, including the war on poverty, voting rights, civil rights, healthcare, and education reforms, is the backdrop for Robert Schenkkan’s second play about our 36th president.

While the legislation was historical and dramatic in its own right, it is the examination of power, both personal and political, that is the focal point of The Great Society. Characters such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Gov. George Wallace, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon populate the stage, but it is the larger-than-life Johnson who struggles with his declining power and health that brings the drama of that tumultuous time back to life. The play’s opening monologue, with LBJ reflecting on his Texas childhood watching a bull rider at a rodeo and wanting to make the ride last as long as possible, sets the tone for what is to come.

With the popularity of political dramas All the Way and Ann, Zach Theatre has found a niche and The Great Society is certain to draw large audiences. The playwright, Robert Schenkkan, may be adding an Oscar to his list of awards, which also includes a Pulitzer and a Tony, as Hacksaw Ridge, which he co-wrote, has been nominated for six Academy Awards. Catch the Texas premiere of this timely play as it is almost certain headed for Broadway.

CultureMap posed four questions to actor Steve Vinovich about The Great Society and his portrayal of LBJ. 

CultureMap: Coming to Austin to play LBJ must have been a little intimidating, as so many people knew him and he remains an icon. How did you prepare to take on the role in both All the Way and again in The Great Society?

Steve Vinovich: I did feel the pressure of getting it right. I watched hours of film, and Bryan Cranston, who played LBJ on Broadway, sent me six hours of audio tapes so I could hear LBJ’s voice and tone. I visited the ranch to get a sense of the man. I got to drive the Lincoln convertible and tour the ranch. I read everything I could about him, and I visited the LBJ Library to do more research. I continue to work on his voice and mannerisms and watch YouTube videos often. I listen to tapes of his voice before almost every performance.

CM: LBJ was legendary for his political savvy. How does that come across in the play, and how do you make that mastery authentic?

SV: In the play there are a couple of instances where he really pulls a quick one, and I think the audience will enjoy that. There are also several times when he gives people — notably Humphrey and Wallace — what I call the "Johnson treatment," where he gets in their face and is very intimidating. I found that there were two LBJs — the one who was presidential and formal in tone and the one who was earthly and determined, especially in his tone.

CM: The Great Society begins where All the Way left off in 1965 and covers the most tumultuous years of his presidency, from 1965 through him leaving office in 1968. The LA Times said that "at moments it can seem like a talking history book." How did you balance history with drama in your characterization?

SV: To me, the play is a living history. There is a lot about what was going on historically — the riots, Vietnam, his battles with Congress — but to me the play is about LBJ’s fall from power and the things that whittled away at his soul and his power. LBJ was a man who was passionate and believed in what he was attempting to do — his legacy and what he would accomplish meant so much to him. Vietnam destroyed him, and he was devastated by the election of Nixon. It is difficult to watch the shifts in power as LBJ sees it slipping away. His story is a kind of Shakespearean tragedy, so there is plenty of drama as well as history.

CM: The play has also been called "an unflinching examination of moral power." The issues it examines — civil rights, voting rights, healthcare, and education — are on the front page every day. What did you learn about politics and its relevance for today as you took on the role?

SV: First I learned to love and respect LBJ and what he was trying to accomplish. I learned what it means to love your country and want to serve your country. I asked [director] Dave Steakley to put something in the playbill explaining that the play was written two years ago — well before anyone could have even imagined this election. The play ends with Richard Nixon vowing to "make America great again." And that is rather frightening. It is very relevant — like looking in a mirror. It is almost shocking when you hear the lines of the play, and I can’t believe that it has been 50 years and we are back here again. Everything in this play will resonate with audiences today. I have to be positive and believe that the current political climate will revitalize and re-energize people to fight for the values and programs that were put into place by the Great Society and LBJ.

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The Great Society runs through March 5.