It is the summer of 1862 — less than three years before President Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. But the man in the stovepipe hat already is thinking long and hard about death as the Civil War has resulted in massive casualties, the sudden death of his beloved son, Willie, has left him and his wife grief-stricken, the threat of assassination looms, and the possible demise of the nation he was elected to lead seems more than possible.
‘THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK’ Highly recommended When: Through Oct. 21 Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $35 Info: www.theaterwit.org Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
As imagined by James Still, whose fascinating fantasia, “The Heavens are Hung in Black,” is now receiving an enthralling Shattered Globe Theatre production, Lincoln, a great fan of Shakespeare, also was thinking about “Hamlet” as he agonized over whether or not to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. And like the Prince of Denmark, he was not only riddled with doubt, but was musing on that classic conundrum: “To be, or not to be?”
Still’s play, which captures a haunted and haunting Lincoln, limns the man’s many complex inner struggles about the war — a conflict he insists is being fought in order to keep the American republic united, far more than to abolish the bitter institution of slavery. And it makes it quite clear that the man was no Abolitionist. But with the war going badly for the Union side, and with the pleas for pardons by anguished mothers on both sides of the conflict piercing his heart, he sensed he had to take a stand. This feeling is further amplified by the many conversations Still imagines Lincoln engaging in during the nocturnal walks he took when plagued by insomnia — conversations with everyone from an old “free man of color” who fought in the Revolutionary War, to Dred Scott (the slave who had sued for his freedom), to John Brown (the white Abolitionist who some branded a terrorist). And fearing his terrible legacy were he to be assassinated, on Jan. 1, 1863 he finally issued the executive order that changed the federal status of more than three million enslaved people in the South from “slave” to “free,” even if, as he well knew, a law does not necessarily become a reality.
Still’s stunningly imagined play, directed with fire and wit by Louis Contey, was first produced in 2009 to celebrate the renovation of the fabled Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. But it feels as if it were written in a great burst of heat in recent weeks as events in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted and reminded the nation that a civil war continues to rage. In addition, in Lawrence Grimm, Contey has not only tapped an actor of great emotional depth and intelligence, but one whose tall, lanky physique and gaunt face make him the closest possible thing imaginable to a Lincoln clone. In a remarkable performance, Grimm gives us a middle-aged Hamlet in the form of a Kentucky-born man who forged his political career in Springfield, Illinois, and held fast to (what was once) the “neighborly” small-town values of that place.
The actor is surrounded by a terrific ensemble. Playing all six of the play’s African-American characters is Darren Jones who does a stunning job of morphing from Dred Scott, to “Uncle Tom,” to Lincoln’s White House butler, to a “21st Century Man,” and more. In the process he suggests, to borrow a phrase from Whitman, that he “contains multitudes.” And then there is the ever-remarkable Linda Reiter as Lincoln’s loving but lonely, spoiled, emotionally distraught wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; Drew Schad as John Hay, the president’s faultlessly loyal assistant; Leo Sharkey, as Todd, his mischievous young son; Tim Kough as Ward Hill Lamon, his self-appointed bodyguard; Brad Woodard as the fiery Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s debating partner in the 1860 presidential race; Don Bender as both Jefferson Davis, the flinty president of the Confederacy, and Edwin Booth, the fabled actor (and his future assassin’s brother); Zach Bloomfield as the tempestuous John Brown; Tim Newell as Walt Whitman, the poet who elegized the war’s fallen soldiers; Kate Harris and Jennifer Cheung as women desperate to save a son and a brother, and Kelsey Colleen Melvin as a young injured soldier.
Throughout there are deftly selected snatches from historical sources, with Michael Stanfill’s lighting and fine interweaving of projections of archival photos, along with Christopher Kriz’s music and sound, Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki’s ideal costumes, and Angela Weber Miller’s set all enriching this immensely compelling work.