Sunday, March 08, 2009

President Lincoln, Me and a Night at the Theater

Last night was a very surreal moment for me. In fact, any moment would be surreal where you walk into a hall that was the site of man's murder - and then look onto the stage and see that man standing there.

No, A. and I didn't see a ghost, but last night's performance of a new play, "The Heavens are Hung in Black," at Ford's Theatre was so remarkable that you felt like you were in the presence of President Lincoln himself and had the opportunity to accompany him on a few days of his life. The play, commissioned by the Theatre in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday and penned by playwright James Still, started its run in February and closes with a final performance this afternoon. In the title role of Lincoln is David Selby, who many (including the lady sitting behind us, who would not stop talking about this fact) will remember from his turn as Quentin Collins on "Dark Shadows" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with "Falcon Crest" and many other roles.

The story takes place in Washington over the span of several days in August 1862, where Lincoln is in a struggle over how and when to remove General George McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac (a very intriguing political story if you ever care to read about it), and even more importantly over how to address the issue of the emancipation of the slaves. At an even more emotional level, however, Lincoln is battling some internal demons - his sense of helplessness over the death of so many young men in the war, and his deep grief over the loss of his son Willie. Rather than just being a play where you see the actions of Lincoln and his cabinet, however, much of the story occurs in his dreams on those rare occasions that he allows himself to sleep. In these dreams, he has riveting conversations with John Brown, Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, Dred Scott, a close friend from his days in Springfield, and even the Uncle Tom character from the Stowe novel, all of which center on the issue of slavery.

He is also haunted by visions of the men from both the North and the South who have lost their lives in battle, portrayed in a very dark and dreamlike state by actors dressed in the costumes of each army and walking past and around Lincoln in a dreary, gray light. There is even a remarkable scene where Lincoln visits a theater where Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) and his ensemble are rehearsing "Hamlet," and through the course of their interaction he gradually takes center stage and movingly recites a soliloquy from that play (it is a well-known fact that Lincoln was an avid reader of the works of Shakespeare).

In each of these dream sequences, the audience hears the faint whispers of voices layered one upon another, but it's not at all clear what they are saying. At the end of the play, however, the voices become clear, and what you find is that they are in fact key phrases from conversations Lincoln has held throughout the play which - individually - mean nothing, but when put together suddenly give him the answers he is seeking.

The play was extremely - and at alternate times - moving, humorous and tragic, the music was superb (written in a slow sort of dirge) and I can't say enough about the performances of the entire cast (with particular kudos to Selby and his outstanding portrayal of Lincoln; we don't know for certain how he spoke or how he acted, but Selby makes you believe that what you are seeing is the real deal). I had never before been to Ford's Theatre, so I can't really judge how much of a change there was during the recent 20-plus million dollar renovation; however, there are no bad seats (except for those four or five unfortunate folks who end up behind a column), and the intimacy of the theater is such that you get an excellent view of the stage and some outstanding acoustics. (Camera phone pictures in a darkened space are notoriously bad, but I've added a few here of the interior and exterior of the building in case you have never visited. I've also added some of Selby as Lincoln, which came from a slideshow posted by the theater.)

I have no idea where the play will go from here, and whether there will be other productions in theaters around the country. If you see that it is coming, I strongly encourage you to attend; while it won't capture the sense of mystique and awe that I felt seeing Lincoln on the stage just below the box where he was shot, it will leave a powerful impression.

I'll close here with the teaser trailer of the play posted on YouTube and on the theater's website; if nothing else, the music alone will give you a sense of what to expect.


Nancy said...

Thanks so much for this detailed report -- it sounds like a wonderful experience! We likely will be heading down to DC later in the spring to visit our kids and perhaps we can taste this, too!

Judy said...

I visited Ford's Theatre a number of years ago when it was in need of repair. It would be interesting to see how it was renovated and see the powerful production you describe.