At first it’s cannon fire…. (Christopher Kriz, Original Music and Sound Design)
Soon it’s the pile on visuals of war’s carnage… (Michael Stanfill, Projection Designer)
In short order--and even before the A-team of acting talent Shattered Globe Theatre has once again assembled gets to say much—this masterful production of playwright James Still’s The Heavens are Hung in Black (Louis Contey, Director) transports us into the zeitgeist of the Civil War.
Yes, we may have read about how close the war was to the White House, but in this production we FEEL it.
Shattered Globe Theatre brings the hell of the Civil War into focus
It’s not just that war is hell; this is a story of Lincoln’s personal hell. His person is fragmenting apace with the one-time nation now torn asunder.
We meet Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Linda Reiter) when they are mourning the loss of a favorite son. Insomniac Lincoln moves in and out of nightmares that afford entrances by the icons of Civil War history—from John Brown (Zach Bloomfield), to Dred Scott and Uncle Tom (Darren Jones), to Stephen Douglas (Brad Woodard), and soldiers who are often wounded and posed like statues (Zach Bloomfield, Jenifer Cheung, Kate Harris, Kelsey Colleen Melvin, and Brad Woodard).
As Lincoln’s person frays and as the nightmare of the war intensifies, these phantasms intrude more and more into his days that are devoted to wrangling the moral complexities of war with the practicalities of politics. The legendary Abe raconteur charm is unbottled and on display with his political cohort—Seward (Don Bender), Stanton (Brad Woodard) and John Hay (Drew Schad), who today would be called Chief of Staff and who more than anyone has an intimate view of Lincoln unraveling.
Others may think of Lincoln as the all-powerful President, but this is a Lincoln who is taming demons unleashed by his powerlessness—whether it’s keeping his son alive, his wife balanced, or getting his feckless military chief to take action. This Lincoln tries to find ballast in the everyday of playing with his young son (Leo Sharkey), escaping his White House prison on long walks without his guards, or granting clemency whenever he can to the countless innocents caught in the insanity of war.
Meanwhile, Walt Whitman (Tim Newell) meanders near Lincoln’s window and on the streets where depleted and exhausted soldiers fall asleep anywhere, despite the hubbub, as a chronicler of the Civil War zeitgeist. For this writer, the eloquence of Whitman’s commentary on the zeitgeist captured by the playwright’s pen has resulted in a newfound thirst to read all things Whitman.
The story behind the Emancipation Proclamation
Like the Spielberg movie starring Daniel Day Lewis, the moral crisis in the story’s center is whether and how to proceed with Emancipation. While the movie explored this subject largely through the lens of how different Senators and Congressmen figured into the horse trading to make the 13th Amendment happen, The Heavens are Hung in Black instead rips open a peephole into Lincoln’s soul as he grapples with finding a way to make the moral decision the politically practical one.
Though his person is threatening to dissolve altogether in the muck of insomnia-fueled hallucination, this is an Abe whose ego DEMANDS that his legacy be the moral breakthrough of ending slavery.
This more honest Abe drawn by Still’s script is made so accessible by Grimm’s performance and Contey’s direction. Grimm gives us a vulnerable Lincoln. Whether it’s Grimm as lonely Lincoln trying to graze his wife’s hand, or taking on the look of an addict as he tackles a pile of correspondence seeking Presidential pardons, or breaking his good nature to berate Stanton to allow him some humanity, or unleashing his homesickness to an old friend from Springfield, and more telling moments—Grimm gives us a Lincoln cut down to human size.
Almost every member of the cast shines. At times this writer had to remind herself that it was Linda Reiter as Mary Todd Lincoln, and not famed Dame Judy Dench, as she so resembled at times. The acting dexterity of this cast is very much on display. Darren Jones handily carries the weight of conveying a wide range of Black personas. You too may find yourself debating whether Don Bender’s performance as Seward vs. Jefferson Davis vs. Edwin Booth (Shakespearean actor and brother of Lincoln’s future assassin) was the more compelling. And though his cameo as Stephen Douglas is relatively short, Brad Woodard lit up the stage as he parsed Lincoln’s stance on slavery in their great debates.
Come to this production knowing your engagement with the story will likely never flag. The small size of the performance space seems to be a key asset, helping to convey the claustrophobia of Lincoln’s internal turmoil and the war ravaging in cannon fire earshot.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine how this play’s first airing in the newly renovated Ford Theater on the occasion of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth could compete with this production, even with then President Obama in the audience and making the kind of thoughtful remarks some of us miss so acutely.
Shattered Globe’s The Heavens are Hung in Black would work for a newly arrived immigrant with no knowledge of Civil War history, the many Lincoln fanatics in our midst who visit collections in Springfield, Chicago History Museum and Lincoln libraries again and again, and most of us who are somewhere in between.
Yes, you will likely also leave the theater pondering the paucity of purpose or core among so many of our current political players.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Thru October 21
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 8 PM
Sundays 3 PM
1229 West Belmont