Willis Reprises LBJ for Asolo's "The Great Society"

Theater

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY SEP 30, 2016

With the incoming production of Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society ready to hit the stage at Asolo Repertory Theatre this January, a late cast change has been announced. Actor Nick Wyman, who portrayed President Lyndon Baines Johnson in last year’s All The Way, Schenkkan’s prequel to The Great Society, will not reprise the role, which will instead be filled by actor Jack Willis, who originated the role in the world premieres of both All The Way and The Great Society at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “There’s more to explore,” says Willis. “I want to do it one more time and then I’ll never do it again.”

Whereas All The Way told the triumphant tale of LBJ’s work with Congress and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Great Society takes aim at the second half of his presidency, when growing anger over the Vietnam War threatens to destroy his legacy of reform. “It’s a tragic story,” says Willis, who describes LBJ as a man who “believed in the right things” and “the leader of my generation.” The person he wants to capture, he says, can be summed up by a handful of photos of the man and his dogs—many at the height of his influence and success and one on the day of his defeat, a man alone with his dogs, broken and beaten but leaving of his own volition. LBJ never ran for reelection, “but he could’ve won,” says Willis.

Though plenty of footage exists of LBJ for aspiring imitators to mine for performance, the key to getting into character is one of understanding, not aping. “You don’t try to mimic the person or do an impersonation,” says Willis. “You try to capture the spirit of the person and the spirit of the moment.” Asked to describe the person of LBJ in few words, he responds, “Cantankerous. Overbearing. Willful. Flawed. But he believed in the things that I believe in.”

The Great Society opens January 11 at Asolo Rep. A graduate of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, Willis says, “It’s nice to bring the role to my alma mater.”

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