Chicago Theater Review: THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK (Shattered Globe Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 11, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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A STUNNING RECLAMATION OF OUR 16th
—AND BEST—PRESIDENT

Right now—bar none—the most stirring chronicle on a Chicago stage is Shattered Globe Theatre’s enthralling 155-minute The Heavens Are Hung in Black at Theater Wit. Whether history as drama or drama as history, this two-act offering from Pulitzer Prize nominee James Still distills 1862—a pivotal year in the Civil War and the storied career of the 16th President—into a powerful mix of memory, dream revelations, seminal quotes, and fascinating meetings of minds and hearts.

The Heavens Are Hung in Black potently depicts the choices and challenges Abraham Lincoln faced, domestic and political, as he anguished over issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. That doctrine would confirm to both sides that the fratricidal struggle (that would continue until his assassination) was to end slavery as much as preserve the Union. It still is. Harnessing a golden cast to perfect purpose, director Louis Contey creates a complete world you can settle into as much as the seat you’re in.

Angela Weber Miller’s scenic simulation of the President’s office, flanked by old-fashioned footlights, becomes, thanks to Michael Still’s wondrous projections, so much more, its all-absorbing talk buttressed by affecting period songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Picket’s Off Duty Forever,” and “We Are Coming, Father Abraham.” Hailey Rakowiecki and Madison Briede’s costumes plunge us into the period.

Much of this territory was covered by screenwriter Tony Kushner in the 2012 Stephen Spielberg film starring Daniel Day Lewis. That very cinematic effort detailed the wrangling, logistics, and deal-making to which a supple chief resorted to pass the proclamation. Still’s more poetic and personal triumph fleshes out the folks who rose or fell to America’s most threatening occasion.

Seen from all sides but mostly from within, Lawrence Grimm’s utterly convincing Abraham Lincoln, longing for a much simpler Springfield, is being tested beyond any standard of fairness by the events of this spring and summer. Coming ever closer to Washington City, the year-long war is going badly, no thanks to the near cowardice of the reluctant warrior George McClellan (mercifully not seen). Lincoln badly needs a victory, moral or military, to rally morale in the doubting North, to prove he’s not a “flimflammer” or “flip-flopper” too aggressive for the Democrats and too weak for the radical Republicans.

Cramming state papers into his stovetop hat, issuing terse directives to his invaluable personal secretary John Hay (Drew Schad), or escaping Potomac pressure by recklessly strolling to the Soldiers’ Home (where he sees the peaceful “heavens hung in black”), Lincoln is the center of all storms. He’s beleaguered by his spendthrift, unbalanced wife Mary (the always superb Linda Reiter), still in denial over the recent death of their son Willie (Gus Zaruba). He’s amused by his impish youngest son Tad (a delightful Leo Sharkey), mischievously playing at being a soldier while the unseen eldest son Robert wants to become one despite his mother’s opposition. He’s protected, barely, by his exasperated bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon (Tim Kough).

Fighting for Lincoln’s support are his foul-mouthed, propulsive Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Brad Woodward) and the wily, opportunistic and sensible-minded Secretary of State William Seward (Don Bender). In his crowded Executive Mansion, he also listens to the pleas of a Confederate widow Mrs. Winston (Kate Harris) seeking mercy for her secessionist spy son and, with more clemency, to a young wife (Jennifer Cheung) whose husband faces a firing squad.

But, the historical backdrop notwithstanding, what sets apart Still’s biographical feat is how this kinetic dramatist employs fantasy sequences to summon up Lincoln’s “better angels” and lesser demons. Lincoln declares, “I can’t sleep. My dreams come looking for me.” In this teeming slumber the rail-splitter confronts telling spirits, alive, dead or fictional—Dred Scott, unwitting victim of the Supreme Court decision sanctioning slave-taking, and Uncle Tom, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s symbol of obedient suffering (Darren Jones); John Brown, the conflict’s first martyr and a firebrand even beyond the grave (Zach Bloomfield); the still-boyish ghost of Willie (Zaruba); and Jefferson Davis, Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart who bellows that fighting against equality and for the freedom to keep humans as chattel equality is not treason. (His ideological descendants continue to stain our republic.)

Lincoln’s actual encounters reveal many aspects of this complex prairie lawyer. Tim Newell’s endearing and persuasive Walt Whitman tends wounded soldiers as he paints Lincoln haunting the capital’s streets on his brooding wanderings. We see Lincoln’s galvanic sympathies as he shares tall tales with Theophilus Hammond (Jones), a 109-year-old, African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War. His unforced friendship with former Illinois neighbor Billy Brown (Bloomfield)—who to Lincoln’s astonishment wants no favors done for him—shows the Great Emancipator’s small-town modesty and delight in tale-spinning.

Most moving is the second act’s opener: An ever-perambulating Lincoln stumbles into a dress rehearsal at the fateful Ford’s Theatre of Henry V, another history play whose crusading king mirrors Lincoln’s doubts about his license to kill. In a brilliant exchange, lead thespian Edwin Booth (Bender), brother to a future assassin, expounds on Hamlet’s dire indecision. Along with all the driving dreams we’ve seen, it’s one more goad to force Lincoln to issue his all-changing proclamation.

What a trove of richly wrought, irresistibly written scenes abounds in this marvelous entertainment! A finer 14-member cast can hardly be conceived, led and inspired by Grimm’s multifaceted, comic/tragic Abraham Lincoln. It’s a theatrical gift so rich you wish it were longer. Joining Permoveo Productions/Pride Films & Plays’ The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier next door at Stage 773, it constitutes a Civil War celebration to share and savor.

photos by Evan Hanover

The Heavens Are Hung in Black
Shattered Globe Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on October 21, 2017
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Theater Wit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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