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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 by the wounded and dead soldiers he encounters at the soldier’s home are part and parcel of the same man who knows he MUST continue to order men to their deaths in order to serve the greater good.


The casting of Lincoln is key in this play, which runs three hours (with two intermissions), during which the character is on stage virtually the whole time. The only exception is two short absences which seem to be designed to cover extremely quick costume changes.  Selby carries it off smoothly and very believably, in a high energy and consistent performance that quickly convinces you that you’re watching Lincoln. The character is almost constantly in motion, pacing, galloping around playing “horsey” for young Tad, bounding onto the stage from the audience during a scene where he is witnessing the rehearsal of a play.  I would also guess that he spent some time studying photos of Lincoln, as many of his facial expressions (most especially a particular smile) bore an eerie resemblance to that of the real man. His body language and movements as well seem well researched, reflecting the historical accounts.


Selby's Lincoln is a contradictory and very human character, very far from the noble, perfect marble icon that he has become over time. The underlying melancholy is balanced with a sly sarcastic humor aimed as much at himself as the absurdities of the world around him.  This is played well, with a dry humor balanced with self mocking wit.  The historical Lincoln was well known for poking fun at his ugliness or homeliness, and there must have been some amusement in these lines to an actor whose talent is often ignored due to his good looks.


It must also be said that both author and actor manage to toe the very fine line between the historical reality of a Lincoln who was a product of a much more bigoted time and historical revisionism in the cause of political correctness.  Lincoln was a man of his time, not of 200 years later, and the point is delicately made in an interchange about black women.  The point is raised that a belief in freedom for black women carries through automatically to a belief in intermarriage.  Lincoln's reply is that this does not necessarily follow:  What's wrong with just leaving her alone?


This illustrates something I sensed throughout the piece; that all the cast members were determined to do justice to the subject matter, and were giving it their all.  I’m unclear whether this is a group which has acted as an ensemble before, or whether they were only brought together for this play. What IS clear to this history buff is that without exception the cast had to have done their historical research to have brought their true life characters so vividly to life.  This was not just a matter of physical resemblance and body type coupled with good makeup, lighting and costumes; the actors were excellent across the board, clearly building the characters from the inside out with a good foundation of what the real people were like, and, in some cases, how they smiled and or moved.


Certain cast members deserve even more credit, for four of them doubled in other roles.  Of these, two deserve special mention:  David Emerson Toney did four roles, three of which were substantial parts of their scenes: the Butler, Dred Scott, an old Black Veteran of the Revolution, and Uncle Tom. It says a lot about this actor that he was able to make these characters very different from each other, and leave the audience in absolutely no doubt which one they were seeing.  The same can be said of actor Hugh Nees, who played the very different roles of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and the colorful, bombastic and hyperactive Stephen A. Douglas.  As a matter of fact, he played the roles so differently that I had to check the playbill to be sure that they weren’t played by two different actors.


Costuming and makeup seemed historically accurate throughout, and great attention appeared to be given to small details.  Hoopskirts changed shape during the antebellum period, and those used seemed true to the period.  The men’s clothing looked right, from coats to nightshirts  -- and the costumers seem to have kept in mind the constant historical references to Lincoln’s too short nightshirts (with, let me add, period underpinnings as insurance against wardrobe malfunctions).


In short, this is a marvelous play, beautifully performed and has a lot to offer even to non-history buffs. If you don’t know the history by heart, the story is self contained; however if you do know the history, you find yourself nodding your head at certain circumstances and phrases as you recall the deeper stories behind them.


If you like the sound of the play and can manage a trip to Washington DC, book your tickets on line as soon as you can.  (Although I saw it twice during my long weekend in DC, I've already planned a second trip, and will see it twice more during the closing week.) The play only runs from February 3- March 8th.



After I finished my own review I went hunting to read other reviews to see what the professional reviewers thought.  For others who think like I do, and like to read a variety of opinions, here's a group of links to reviews from various publications:

This is a link to a still of President Obama being presented the Gettysburg Address by Selby.  This was after a benefit performance on February 11th, and he is still in costume as Lincoln. 
The link to Flickr is a set of stills posted by Ford's theater and are shots from the technical rehearsal, with the cast in full costume and makeup.

review @JMW February 2009 and may not be reprinted without citation and permission

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