The Heavens Are Hung in Black
Written by James Still
Directed by Stephen Rayne
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
I have been thinking fondly about this touching world premiere since I saw it, and I’ll likely see it again. The scenes and images stay with you, in a drifting, dreamy sort of way. The tribute depicts Lincoln the man behind the stiff, immortal chisel-jaw hero who has been immortalized, even more intensely now with his bicentennial celebration. Bits of history are interspersed in the story, but the author James Still never loses sight of his intention, to present the man who lived in those moments of history, wrestling with his conscience, ghosts of the young soldiers, and the bloodbath of the Civil War to preserve the Union, abolishing slavery along the way.
David Selby plays Lincoln with the ease of an old chum, full of life, promise, candor and humility. He’s got the angular even ungainly movements down pat, and works through the depths of Lincoln’s character with an uncanny familiarity. As Lincoln, Selby can stroll across the stage like he has nary a care in the world, get down playfully on all fours to catch his scampering young son tucked under the wooden desk, become benevolent caretaker to his dear wife Mary, still grief stricken from the recent death of their beloved son, Willie, and within moments, stand with the weight of the country framed squarely on his shoulders. Selby is transfixing in those moments, setting his jaw, eyes focused, resolute and determined to do whatever it takes to preserve the Union, even if it meant freeing the slaves.
In his meticulous research, playwright James Still clarifies that the first priority of the “Great Emancipator” was to preserve the Union. “What shall be done with the Negro?” is the plaintive question Lincoln ponders with his cabinet staff in attendance. Even while the Union army was threadbare and worn, the able bodied blacks couldn’t be armed and brought into service – that would destroy the already tepid allegiance of the borderline states and give them reason to bolt to the other side with the aftershocks of Nat Turner’s rebellion still seething from thirty years prior, along with other slave uprisings. Still has done his homework and relays the strategic points and counterpoints of Lincoln’s quandaries with clear and present urgency, bringing battles and battlefields front and center, and burrowing deep into the psyche of the man who maintained the integrity of the “more perfect union” of these United States.
At times like this, while the nation is embroiled in all kinds of turmoil, including massive nuclear weaponry, terrorist attacks, unfamiliar battlefields and economic upheaval, there is a comfort in knowing that our countrymen survived much worse. Still weaves in just enough history to keep things in context for refreshing familiarity. So that’s who Seward Square was named after, and how tantalizing to see depictions of the great Walt Whitman, Dred Scott, and even Edwin Booth, a talented Shakespearean actor with tremendous oratory skills forever known as the brother of the president’s assassin. Still’s artistry brings these characters to life with wholesome originality and skill. The passage with Edwin Booth and his troupe of actors is particularly effective with Michael Kramer’s touching portrayal, and showcases Stephen Rayne’s brilliant direction.
Historical figures aside, the play’s most powerful impact comes from the stories behind the rag-tag army, foot soldiers barely out of adolescence who got swept up to fight for the cause only to end up dead, mortally wounded, deserted, or executed for minor offenses and misdemeanors. Still has a way of weaving epic history with the everyday moment. In just a line or two, Lincoln expresses his surprise and dismay that what he assumed would be a quickie dust-up skirmish has resulted in states actually seceding from the Union and setting up a separate country with constitution, flag and capitol. Also telling are the passages where Lincoln describes plans to enjoy retiring to his beloved Illinois after just a few more years of duty to the country. Still sets up these scenarios that are not to be with just the right slight of hand. He obviously knows his way around historical legacy and Ford’s Theatre having written the well received Looking Over the President’s Shoulder several years ago.
David Emerson Toney does double and triple duty in a number of roles and it was refreshing to watch him sink into his sundry characters, including the quiet butler who may as well be invisible despite the consternation about the “Negro problem.” Robin Moseley is touchingly effective as Mary Todd Lincoln and Hugh Nees takes on his usual workhorse load with ease.
The talented team of designers were of one mind in creating this marvel of a piece. Set designer Takeski Kata’s stage transforms from the Oval office to the battle fields of civil war, with modern touches of video design by Clint Allen. Costume designer Wade Laboissonniere’s period designs match the mood and temperament of the characters, and the musical interludes by sound designer who composed the original music of solitary flute, fife and drum, set the tone. Topping it off, the lighting designer Pat Collins works miracles with shadows creating an eerie ghostly pale of the soldiers as they traipse along the periphery and across the stage for a stunning effect.
The timing couldn’t be better to be part of history, to see this engaging world premiere at the re-opening of the Ford’s Theater after almost two years of renovation. There is nothing quite like sitting in that theater and looking over at the flag-draped Presidential box for any production, particularly this one.
Running Time: 3 hours with two intermissions
When: Thru March 8. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 (call for several exceptions), Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:30 (except Febr 15th).
Where: Ford’s Theatre, 514 Tenth Street, Washington, D.C.
Call: 202.434-9548 or