At Ford’s Theatre Museum, decorous glass-cased displays and solemn recorded voices chronicle the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Whiffs of the exhibits’ earnest, tidily instructive aura also cling to “Necessary Sacrifices,” the drama about Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that is making its world premiere on the stage that’s one floor up from the museum. Recalling two documented meetings between the president and the abolitionist in 1863 and 1864, Richard Hellesen’s idea-packed drama is so carefully informative — and so neatly packaged — that you exit feeling as if you’ve racked up an AP History credit, rather than experienced a piece of art.
That’s not to say that “Necessary Sacrifices,” commissioned by Ford’s and directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, lacks engaging or affecting moments. The author of three other historical plays produced by Ford’s — “One Destiny,” “The Road From Appomattox” and the walking tour “Investigation: Detective McDevitt” — Hellesen has seeded this new research-based script with colorful Civil War details and anchored it to a lively, often humorous portrait of the president. Fleshing out the portrait is David Selby, an actor who’s an old pro at this particular game, having depicted Honest Abe in Ford’s “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” as well as in the play “Lincoln and James,” which Selby wrote himself.
Lanky, angular and slightly stooped, with a jutting chin and an aw-shucks manner, Selby’s Lincoln is a resolutely unglamorous, self-deprecating leader, given to uttering wry, pithy quips (“Merely the lead mule on a very unruly team” is his metaphor for his own presidency) in a high, quavering voice. As he drapes his long limbs over the desk and chairs in his office (scenic designer James Kronzer sets the furniture against the backdrop of a translucent White House facade), this Springfield lawyer turned commander in chief is clearly aware of cutting an incongruous profile in Washington’s halls of power.
With this confident, sharply honed and sometimes affecting performance planted at its center, “Necessary Sacrifices” should, by rights, unfold as a now-tense, now-poignant dialectic of ideas and character: the relatively pragmatic, responsibility-burdened Lincoln matched with the impassioned, idealistic, impatient Douglass, who finds fault with the president’s tactics, such as his reluctance to champion equal pay and advancement opportunities for black soldiers in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But “Necessary Sacrifices” fails to develop Douglass’s personality as fully as it does Lincoln’s. You cannot lay all the blame on Craig Wallace, who stepped into the Douglass role on short notice, after a health issue prompted David Emerson Toney’s withdrawal. As of the press performance, Wallace had not yet found the mannerisms and poise that might make this 19th-century luminary seem like a living, breathing being. This weakness is particularly apparent when the play reaches 1864 and Selby’s Lincoln — in a moving twist — seems frailer, sadder and wearier than he did in 1863, while Wallace’s Douglass displays the same ramrod-straight posture and testy gravitas. Still, Wallace, whose many credits include Ford’s “Sabrina Fair,” will likely refine his depiction as the run progresses.
The refinement will hit some limits, though, since Hellesen stints on his characterization of Douglass, giving the best lines and just about all the idiosyncrasies to Lincoln. (“I’ve thought about moving my office to a smallpox hospital,” the president jokes, complaining about the press of workday visitors.) As a result, the play’s conflicts turn not so much on personalities as on big ideas: What does leadership entail? Do suffering and sacrifice have payoffs, in religious terms or otherwise? And what kind of country is America meant to be?
Obviously, many of these issues resonate — and aggravate — in our own political landscape. But the topical echoes aren’t quite enough to banish the play’s air of concertedly edifying time-traveling. At one point during their acquaintanceship, in a gesture that seems aimed at both charming and needling his visitor, Lincoln tosses his walking stick to Douglass. For an instant, the stick hangs suspended in the air, an emblem of possibility: “Necessary Sacrifices” as a whole never attains comparable liftoff.
by Richard Hellesen. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson; costume design, Helen Huang; lighting design, Dan Covey; sound design and original music, John Gromada; wig and makeup design, Anne Nesmith; dialects, Kim James Bey. With Thomas Booker and Tony Donaldson, Jr. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Feb. 18 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit www.fords.org or call 800-982-2787.