Show: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”
Company: Shattered Globe Theatre
Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)
Abraham Lincoln cannot sleep. At the height of the Civil War, his leading general refuses to attack the Confederate army, his wife obsessively mourns their lost son Willie, and Washington insiders criticize his every decision. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown in Shattered Globe’s Chicago premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” and a more care-worn and exhausted president we are not likely to witness soon.
Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) is facing a national crisis in 1861. He worries the North may lose the war, but is unwilling to negotiate with the South. Nor will he consider the possibility of emancipating the South’s slaves, since he worries that will make eventual reconciliation between the states impossible. Once his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter) holds a séance to call back their child, ghosts begin to haunt Lincoln’s dreams. John Brown (Zach Bloomfield) scolds him for ignoring the needs of African American men and women. Dred Scott (Darren Jones) reminds him that the rule of law must be challenged when it is unjust. Numerous Union soldiers appear before his eyes, as he writes out pardons for those too wounded or scared to serve. None of these visions help Lincoln decide how best to steer the war forward, or motivate him to sign the emancipation proclamation, though he is told he has already composed the document in his head.
Playwright James Still takes a deep dive into our sixteenth president’s consciousness, in order to make history fresh for the audience. Of course we all know that Lincoln will write and sign the proclamation, but Still is interested less in the “how” of the document than the “why.” What made Lincoln take such a bold action, and free America’s slaves? Rather than spend too long on cabinet meetings and troop morale, Still focuses on Lincoln as an interior and lonely figure. The man comes most alive when telling stories, and is horrified by the Union dead and historical figures that swirl around him. Still’s theatricality is to be applauded. He puts the audience off-kilter at every new approach of a dream-like figure. But the collection of dreams often fails the make the stakes of Lincoln’s decision all that present in the real-life scenes. It likely does not help that Still focuses so much on Union soldiers’ anguish, rather than providing a clear picture of everything the enslaved population of the South is dealing with; thus, the play never feels attached to our current moment, despite the lessons to be learned from the moral leader at its center.
Director Louis Contey does marvelous work maneuvering Lincoln in and out of his dreamscape. There is not much space onstage for all the war dead and historical legends to stand out, but Contey swiftly moves focus from person to person, so that even the smallest stroke of a pen, or the anger flashing across a gaze, reads to the audience. His work with the actors is equally sharp and specific.
Grimm’s Lincoln is alert and open despite his exhaustion; he never projects a larger than life attitude, but keeps Lincoln’s physicality and gestures small and folksy; he presents a man we might meet on the street, and with whom we would immediately sympathize. Reiter is fiery as Mary Todd, eschewing her infamous instability, and putting grief in its place. She is a woman of high wit and clear taste, and she does not allow the audience to pathologize her purchases or her demands on her husband; ultimately, Reiter provides the key to inspiring Lincoln to make the right decision. Brad Woodard and Don Bender as members of Lincoln’s cabinet electrify in arguments over the proclamation, bringing stakes to largely expositional scenes. And Jones excels at bringing the ghosts Lincoln ignores to humorous and complex life.
Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and costume designers Madison Briede and Hailey Rakowiecki bring credibility to the 1861 setting, while lighting designer Michael Stanfill and sound designer Christopher Kriz haunt the dreamier elements of the play. In particular, Kriz’s inclusion of a hand pounding on Lincoln’s door becomes more and more pronounced and ominous over time.
“The Heavens Are Hung In Black” could never be called dull, or even confounding. Shattered Globe’s company of artists brings their full force to its questions of right and wrong, of doubt and hope. If the playwright had given the audience more time to dwell in the real world, we may have felt Lincoln’s cares as heavily as the actors, but even with a little remove, the production still makes a strong impression.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: The president makes a hard decision in an intriguing dreamscape.
DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”