The Heavens Are Hung in Black
by James Still The Heavens Are Hung in Black
James Still’s new play about Abraham Lincoln that just, completed its opening run at the newly renovated Ford’s Theatre, is by no means perfect. For one thing, with a running time of nearly three hours, even with two intermissions it is still probably 20 to 30 minutes too long. Second, Still’s succession of dream sequences, interwoven with historical fantasy and fact, strays at times, forcing perhaps even the most ardent Lincoln admirer to clamor for crib notes.
But there are enough moments of story-telling brilliance, heart-tugging drama and understated humor in Heavens to make it well worth the price of admission. A prime example is the dream sequence that opens Act 2, in which a barefoot, nightgown-clad Lincoln trades witty barbs with Jefferson Davis about the causes of civil war and the divided nation’s future.
Still focuses on the five months in 1862 between the death of Lincoln’s son Willie and his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Veteran stage and screen actor David Selby, as Lincoln, masterfully captures the president’s grief as well as his guilt over burgeoning war casualties. Fortunately, Lincoln’s lighter side is frequently evident too, as when he fends off Davis’ pointed jabs with his trademark folksy, self-deprecating humor. And Shakespeare himself would likely tip his cap to Still for the scene where Lincoln joins a rehearsal of Henry V featuring Edwin Booth, brother of his would-be assassin, and delivers on cue one of Henry’s haunting soliloquies.
Throughout the play Lincoln, and also the audience, are reminded of death’s close proximity. And while Heavens would be compelling on any stage, seeing it at Ford’s Theatre, with its bunting-draped presidential box, brought an extra fillip of drama to a dramatic interlude from the past.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.