October 12, 2009
Indiana Repertory Theatre
James Still's The Heavens are Hung in Black premiered at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. in February in front of President Obama and has come to Indianapolis' Indiana Repertory Theatre for its second production. Still, commissioned to write a play on Abraham Lincoln for the reopening of Ford's Theatre after a lengthy renovation, is IRT's playwright-in-residence and has crafted a wonderful imagining of eight months of Lincoln's 1862.
With his wife in mourning following the death of their son Willie, Lincoln is himself still recovering from the loss of their oldest child all the while trying to lead a divided nation fighting over slavery and state's rights.
While being pressured from all sides by anti-slavery protestors and Confederate rivals, President Lincoln (Nicholas Hormann) tries to oversee the Civil War and still find time to play with his son and appease and comfort his still-suffering wife (Mary Beth Fisher). The tone of the play is set early on when a woman appears at the door of the Oval Office after walking into the White House looking to talk to the president. She is the mother of a son who has been sentenced to die for having been a Confederate soldier (even though he had resigned and gone back home), and has come to Lincoln to beg him to sign her son's pardon. Lincoln struggles with the decision to withhold his signature even though it means a young man must die. The denied mother leaves, but not after turning from the door and telling Lincoln to pass along her condolences to Mrs. Lincoln because, "It must be unbearable losing a son," which cuts to the heart of the president and brings an audible response from the audience.
Many of the scenes in The Heavens are Hung in Black are told in dream sequences, with Lincoln interacting with the enjoyably angry abolitionist John Brown (Robert Neal), Dred Scott, who is a slave fighting in court for his freedom, Walt Whitman, Edwin Booth, Stephen Douglas, and the character Uncle Tom from Uncle Tom's Cabin, among others. Both funny and serious, we see the evolution of Lincoln's attitude toward slaves and what their life is to be like once (or if) they are freed.
The play is mostly set within the confines of the Oval Office, with distant tents of soldiers ominously surrounding the Oval Office. A divide occurs several times throughout the play during dream sequences, creating an obvious visual with Stephen Douglas while debating the merits of the war and other topics of life. The poet Walt Whitman, who lived in D.C. while Lincoln was president, acts as narrator/chorus throughout, giving a lyrical voice to the surrounding events. Edwin Booth and his theatre company are present in a nice vignette with Lincoln discussing Henry V and Hamlet with the actors and developing parallels with his presidency and the war.
While this production is more than 150 minutes long (including intermission), it goes by quickly and is not to be missed. The Heavens are Hung in Black is a terrific production for IRT to open its season.
For more info: For tickets and info for Indiana Repertory Theatre, visit their website or call 317.635.5252.