By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
How could a theater lover not warm to a president who idolizes Shakespeare -- and recites his speeches from memory, to boot?
One of the lovelier moments of "The Heavens Are Hung in Black" -- the engrossing, if long-winded, new Abraham Lincoln play that christens the renovated Ford's Theatre -- imagines the beleaguered president happening upon a Washington rehearsal of "Henry V," presided over by none other than Edwin Booth, brother of the man who would later kill him.
As embodied with a disarming folksiness by the terrific David Selby, Lincoln appropriates an actor's cue and, reciting from one of Henry V's speeches before the battle at Agincourt, reveals the troubled state of his own mind: "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning," Selby's Lincoln declaims, with a passion that impresses the professionals.
Plagued throughout the nearly three-hour "Heavens" by grief at the death of his own son -- and his guilt over the legions of fathers, sons and brothers he's sent into battle -- the Lincoln conjured by playwright James Still seems as movingly human as any man who's occupied the presidency. Selby helps immeasurably here, endowing his Lincoln with the gift of humility. The depth of empathy is such that you are allowed to believe that the president -- visited by a woman seeking a pardon for her soldier brother, who's been condemned for falling asleep at his post -- might get down on his knees with her and weep.
So we come to like this guy -- we really, really like him! And likability shouldn't be underestimated, in a leader or in a play. The sprawling "Heavens Are Hung in Black" bogs down at times in message-laden history lessons: Do we really need the hovering image of a black man in modern Brooks Brothers attire to explain this president's legacy? But the play holds winningly to its central portrait. Mixing fact and fantasy, exploring the drudgery of White House decision-making as well as the vividness of Lincoln's dreams, the work invites an audience to a fuller appreciation of the tortured spirit of the man, given the joyless times he had to endure.
Certainly those with an intense fondness for Lincoln and the Civil War will eat up every second of "Heavens," even though it is afflicted at times by what Lincoln would have called "the slows." The occasion, in any event, does seem to merit an ambitious play: This Ford's-commissioned world premiere celebrates the completion of an 18-month, $25 million rehabilitation that, among other amenities, adds to the historic surroundings a comfortable new lobby, vastly improved sound production and -- revolutionarily -- theater seats that don't send you to a chiropractor.
The piece, too, receives a fluid transfer from the page by director Stephen Rayne, who worked as an associate director for Trevor Nunn, former head of both the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He elicits supple characterizations from an excellent cast, particularly in Robin Moseley's elegant account of Mary Todd Lincoln, who in some portrayals can come across as an unrelieved downer. Courtesy of Still's humane rendering, Moseley sweeps us up in the wake of a woman stricken to near-hysteria over the death of her son Willie, and yet not so enveloped in mourning that she can't see what the trials of the office are doing to her husband.
"The Heavens Are Hung in Black" concerns a period in mid-1862, when Lincoln was increasingly agitated about the lack of progress of the Northern armies under Gen. George P. McClellan's command. Set chiefly in Lincoln's White House office -- an image of a half-finished Washington Monument is visible out a window of Takeshi Kata's artful, semi-realistic set -- the drama takes detours into and out of the president's consciousness. The impetus for his soul-searching, witnessed by his personal secretary John Hay (Jonathan Fielding), as well as such Cabinet members as War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Hugh Nees) and Secretary of State William Seward (Edward James Hyland), goes to the core of his presidency: To what end has he taken the country to war?
The argument comes down to whether Lincoln's fundamental fight is to reunite the nation or abolish slavery. The distinction is hardly a small one, for his philosophical struggle, the play posits, will ultimately result in his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. (There's a suggestion here that issuing the document provides a sort of psychological surge, one that reinvigorates the moral advantage of Lincoln and the North.)
Yet a vibrant dramatization of this act of conscience and political will is not so easy. Parlaying the evidence of Lincoln's own obsession with dreams, Still offers up Lincoln summoning visions of polemical debates between himself and figures dead, such as the radical abolitionist John Brown (Norman Aronovic); alive, like Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Hyland again); and fictional, as in Uncle Tom of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (David Emerson Toney).
These talky interludes are not as galvanizing as the more imaginative peeks that Still and Rayne provide into the realm of Lincoln's hallucinatory doubts and fears. In a series of spectrally beautiful scenes, Lincoln is beset in his office by phalanxes of wounded soldiers, whose whisperings suggest the exceedingly intimate level at which their suffering consumes the president.
The far more useful emotional hook for "Heavens" is the proximity of death, magnified both by Willie's recent death and the oft-expressed worries of his staff about the president's safety. Here was a president, it seems, no more capable of bearing a stranger's loss than his own.
Wade Laboissonniere's period costumes, particularly the gowns for Mary Todd Lincoln, are transporting elements, and Pat Collins's lighting design impressively mimics a late candlelit working night in Lincoln's office. In smaller turns, Michael Kramer's dapper Booth, Hyland's profane Seward, Toney's natively wise Uncle Tom and Nees's self-important Stephen Douglas all make effective contributions.
Best of all is the tall man at center stage with the twang and the instantly recognizable beard. Expressing this commander in chief's disdain for formality, Selby at one point tells an awed citizen how to address him. "Call me Lincoln," says Selby, who on this evening has absolutely earned the right.
The Heavens Are Hung in Black, by James Still. Directed by Stephen Rayne. Sound and original music, Ryan Rumery; video design, Clint Allen; dialect consultant, Lynn Watson; wigs and makeup, Cookie Jordan. With Benjamin Cook, Steven Carpenter, Chaney Tullos, Beth Hylton, Scott Westerman, James Chatham, Jonathan Watkins, Benjamin Schiffbauer. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through March 8 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit http://www.fords.org or call 202-397-SEAT.