Review: The Heavens are Hung in Black -- Ford's Theater February 3- March 8, 2009

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The Heavens are Hung in Black
A World Premiere of a play by James Sill
Ford's Theater, Washington DC
February 3, 2009- March 8, 2009

The Heavens are Hung in Black is not a linear historical play, but uses real events mingled with dream visits from various figures (a nice tie-in to the historically documented dreams of the real man) to explore the events and arguments which finally led Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation.


As the play opens we meet a Lincoln still overwhelmed with raw, recent grief for his young son Willie (His death is so recent to the events of the play that every Thursday --the day of the week Willie died -- is an incredible ordeal for both parents).   Lincoln, however, doesn’t have the luxury of peace and time to grieve. 


The business of government must go on, and the demands are endless: McClellan and his excuses for not engaging Lee, money, supplies, politics and political maneuvering with Congress, an endless parade of people wanting favors from the President. Then there are the decisions, with every decision carrying with it its own level of consequences, all with the potential to cause, by one means or another, the end of the United States.


As if these forces weren’t burdensome enough, he also tries to support his wife and son in their grief.  Mary’s all encompassing grief, and her dependence on spiritualists and mediums, in fact, leads to the first of Lincoln’s visits, from the ghost of John Brown. This visit, like much of the rest of the play, has a wry wit from both that is very much in tune with the historical Lincoln.  Interacting with his cabinet members and secretaries, he makes it extremely clear that he has a low opinion of spiritualists, mediums and the ghosts they are claiming to contact, but is putting up with it because it eases his wife’s grief.  (This has an extra level of humor to those who remember that David Selby first became known for playing a Victorian era ghost). A particularly good joke was about Brown’s ghost being the one who coughed during the Sťance Lincoln had just been at with Mary, but that he was NOT going to speak through one of the charlatans downstairs.


As the events in the real world develop and intensify, the second act opens with Lincoln and Jeff Davis, both sitting up in chairs in their nightshirts, debating which one of them was in the other’s dream.  (The second time I saw the play, from the Dress Circle, I noticed an interesting effect which I hadn’t seen from the Orchestra. The lighting had been designed so that it showed an outline of a large bed, stretching from the back to the front of the stage, overlaying the set dressing of Lincoln’s office.)  The two Presidents debate many of the ongoing issues of the war and focus on states rights vs. ending slavery as the purpose of the war. As was pointed out during my visit to the Soldier’s Home, the fundamental divide between the North and South was that the North took the Declaration of Independence  -- “all men are created equal”  -- as the higher authority, whereas for the South the Constitution’s later sidestepping interpretation took precedence.


Later, dream images of Stephen A. Douglas, Dred Scott -- even Willie Lincoln and Uncle Tom, among others, echo these same themes, as Lincoln debates and reviews the issues of slavery, political expedience and his own evolutions of opinion with his dream visitors. James Still’s script does a good job of balancing the real life issues and people, both real and fictional, whose writings and experiences helped form Lincoln’s opinions and beliefs and their changes over time.


One standout scene was Dred Scott (David Emerson Toney)’s impassioned speech that he and those like him couldn’t wait for the slow way; that, as a matter of fact, he had died waiting. (Lincoln’s long time preference was for merely preventing new slaveholding territories, thus letting the institution die by slow attrition.  This was especially true during the early years of the war, when it was feared that definitive action on abolition would have alienated the slaveholding states who had not seceded and resulted in their joining the Confederacy.) The analogy was made (and carried throughout the play) comparing emancipation as an idea whose time had come to a pear ready to be picked. And if the pear was not picked in its time, it would go overripe and be smashed uselessly into the earth.


The script is strong throughout, and the history well researched and distributed throughout the work.  There was only one minor stumble, and that was with the ending.  The audiences at both shows I saw seemed unclear whether the play actually was over (a curtain wasn’t used for the stage so that visual clue wasn’t available), causing an awkward pause before the applause began. The script (and the strong performance by the lead actor) combined to create a flawed and human Lincoln, contradictory at times the way real people (and well written characters) are. The loving and concerned father who repeatedly digs up his son’s doll, Jack, after the son executes the toy soldier for sleeping on duty; the husband fondly recalling memories of courtship to his wife, mocking his own unskilled dancing in the process and the commander in chief haunted