‘All the Way’
Through May 8
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
When Cameron Folmar was cast as Alabama’s notoriously racist former governor George Wallace in “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning play about President Lyndon Johnson’s struggle to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of his friends were a little put off. But those who understood the dramatic possibilities implicit in playing a dark character instantly realized what a juicy part the actor had landed.
Going into Arena Stage’s production, Folmar, who’s gay, didn’t know a lot about Wallace — what he most remembered about was the well-known photo of then-Gov. Wallace standing in a doorway blocking black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. With his vow of “segregation forever,” Wallace seems cartoonishly villainous, Folmar says.
“But like a lot of seemingly one-dimensional character, he’s actually complex. Though I must confess with a character like him it was challenging to find something in myself to bring him out in a realistic way.”
“All the Way” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and premiered in 2012 during an election season. If it was timely then and moreso now.
“Not a week goes by that comparisons are not made between Donald Trump and Wallace,” says Folmar, a Georgia native who calls New York City home. “Because of Trump and Cruz too, civil rights are center. The Civil Rights Act talked about in the play outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Like Trump, Wallace did a lot of chest thumping and played to the fear and anger of people who felt left out and left behind.”
From the start, Folmar was excited to be part of this production and eager to work at Arena for the first time.
“When the cast gathered for a read through of the play, we all felt turbo charged with a rush of excitement. What had been abstract had suddenly become real. We’re in D.C. where some of the characters are still alive, barely so in some cases. But there are plenty of people around who knew these people.”
Staged by Kyle Donnelly, the play features 66 named characters played by 17 actors. With the exception of President Johnson (played by Jack Willis, who created the role in Oregon), the play’s many historical figures deliver a message, hit home some points and disappear back into the wings.
“Because Jack is so good and so familiar with the part,” Folmar says, “I think we were able to focus on the other many characters in a way that would have been impossible. He’s the sun and we’re all orbiting around that giant figure.”
As Wallace, Folmar pops on stage for four rabble-rousing speeches. He also plays other parts including California Congressman James C. Corman, a liberal Democrat who championed the Civil Rights Act, and Walter Reuther, former president of the United Automobile Workers at a time when unions had significant power.
“It’s episodic with many short scenes, but that’s really the best way to tell this story,” Folmer says. “Prior to serving as vice president and then president after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson was in both houses of Congress. He’s known as a master manipulator who got thousands of bills through in a way we can’t imagine today. In the play he’s portrayed as having a 15-track mind and is constantly juggling with both hands and feet. Characters are coming at him from all directions.”
Folmar’s relationship with the D.C. theater scene began in New York. He studied with Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn when Kahn was also head of the acting program at Juilliard in Manhattan. Months after Folmar graduated in 1999 Kahn cast him as Edgar in “King Lear.”
“It was a big break for me,” says Folmer, 45. “And since then I’ve been lucky with parts especially in D.C.”
Washington highlights include “Five by Tenn,” a collection of rarely produced Tennessee Williams one-acts including“And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens” in which Folmar played an aging, lonely drag queen; Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” at Studio Theatre; and Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” at Shakespeare. On and off-Broadway he enjoyed a long run in the hit comedy “The 39 Steps.”
“I’m happiest on stage when I’m covered in dirt and look like hell and am insane. Or when I’m dressed fabulously, well spoken and wealthy and carrying a glass of Champagne. Either extreme is what it’s all about for me.”
Folmar is comfortably out in his career. He came out at 18 while doing summer theater in New Jersey.
“I fell hard in love with a fellow actor. And that was it. I remember thinking ‘I’m gay. Nobody’s going to tell me it’s wrong and I’m not interested in trying to hide it.’ Prior to that, I’d had secret boyfriends in high school. We’d park in cornfields and fool around like all the other kids in Georgia. While there have been good closeted actors, I think it’s better to be out,” he says. “It’s important to listen with your heart. Really what you have in the end is your own experience and if you’re looking at that through gauze, it’s impossible to reach it as deeply.”