Mélanie and I spent last week in Ashland, Oregon, visiting friends, eating some great meals, and (for Mummy) seeing some great theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival while Mel played with some wonderful babysitters. The theatre highlight of the trip was Great Society by Robert Schenkkan, a sequel to All the Way, the play about Lyndon Johnson’s first year as president and the passing of the Civil Rights Act which OSF commissioned and premiered two years ago and which recently took Broadway by storm and won the Tony for best new play. Great Society picks up the story after LBJ’s re-election and chronicles his nights to pass Medicare and other social program legislation, the increasing quagmire of the Vietnam War, and his ultimate decision not to run for a second term. Like All the Way, it is written in the style of a Shakespeare history play, with the protagonist addressing the audience at times, a large cast of characters (including Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and J. Edgar Hoover) from different groups, large scale scenes set on the public stage contrasting with domestic moments of key characters with their families. As an historical novelist, I’m in awe of the way these two plays bring history to life.
It was a brilliant production and particularly exciting to follow it up with an also brilliant Richard III. Schenkkan’s LBJ is far more sympathetic than Shakespeare’s Richard III, a flawed ambitious man who is also trying to do genuine good, but there are some wonderful parallel moments in the two plays – LBJ and Richard’s opening monologues to the audience, scenes in which both of them try tactics that have worked in the past to manipulate, respectively, Robert Kennedy and Elizabeth Woodville, this time unsuccessfully, and closing speeches by the “new king” – Richard Nixon and Henry VII. Both casts were fabulous with amazing performances by Jack Willis as LBJ and Dan Donohue as Richard III. In the curtain call, both looked like completely different men, a sign of how much they had transformed themselves in the performance.
Another standout of the trip was a magical production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods which did full justice to the complex music while also bringing out the dramatic nuances of the story. A mix of fairytales (among them Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel) at it’s heart it’s a story about parents and children poignant, starkly sad at times, ultimately hopeful. I cried through the last fifteen minutes.
All the plays were wonderfully inspiring for me as a writer. Political intrigue and family drama go to the heart of what my books are about. I came home excited to get back to writing. I can’t wait until Mélanie is old enough to take to some of the plays. Meanwhile, it’s fun telling her about the plays. And on the drive home, we listened to the CD of Into the Woods, to which she announced “I like the music.”