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'The Heavens are Hung in Black' at Ford's Theater

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courtesy photo

courtesy photo

Published on: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

By David Cannon

After a year-and-a-half renovation, Ford’s Theater reopens with a world premiere play in time for the Lincoln Bicentennial. It’s a strong performance of a very good new play–a little long, but one that offers fresh insight on this most honored yet enigmatic President.

First, Ford’s Theater itself has a new lobby next door with improved box office and rest room facilities.  The seats are far more comfortable although legroom remains an issue. Best of all is that the sight lines have been altered so that no one ends up behind a column, missing half the action.  Except for the legroom issues, the renovations are a great success.

As for “The Heavens are Hung in Black,” this is a three-act, three-hour play about Lincoln during 1862, probably the most crucial year of his Presidency. His beloved son Willie died earlier that winter and Lincoln has to control his own sense of loss as well as a deteriorating Mary Todd Lincoln. All this happening on top of the Civil War, which is going badly for the Union. The Peninsular Campaign has totally stalled while Lincoln and his administration struggle with related issues such as Emancipation.

James Still’s script is long and at times rambling, but for a history or theatre buff, it is a fascinating evening.  Still successfully weaves all these serious issues together while showing us glimpses of the intimate Lincoln – playing with his son Tad and his toy soldiers, interrupting a theater rehearsal during a rainstorm, and his famous sense of humor. There’s the famous complaint that if General McClellan is going to do nothing with the Army, Lincoln “would like to borrow it.”

Crucial here is David Selby as Lincoln.  Most people will remember Selby as the scheming Richard Channing from “Falcon Quest” and the brooding Quentin Collins from “Dark Shadows.” It turns out that Selby is a great Lincoln, looking the part and showing us the human side of a President going through many mood swings as events minor and momentous swirl around him.

Selby is center stage as Lincoln for well over 90 percent of the evening. Miscasting this part would have destroyed the play. Selby can be overjoyed meeting an old friend, brooding when it comes to the war and commanding when arguing his points. It’s a richly textured performance and that alone is worth going to Ford’s for three hours.

But the large supporting cast is excellent throughout, some appearing in Lincoln’s fervid dreams and others in the flesh. Let me single out Robin Moseley’s richly layered Mary Todd Lincoln, Hugh Nees’ feisty Stephen Douglas, Norman Aronovic’s righteous and hectoring John Brown, and a highly ironic scene with Michael Kramer as the awed actor Edwin Booth. Didn’t Booth have a brother?

Also adding to the show is Takeshi Kata’s set design, giving us a minimalist Oval Office that can open up to show us a local cemetery and dream visions of cascading rivers. Most impressive are scenes where ghosts of Civil War soldiers invade the Oval Office while a flood of whisperings fill the sound system.  Director Stephen Rayne keeps this sprawling saga focused and moving swiftly.

At three hours, this play is too long, although it is hard to say what to cut. I loved the scenes with Michael Goodwin’s brooding Walt Whitman and could forego the dream meeting with Edward Hyland’s  Jefferson Davis, but I could see someone else having the exact opposite opinion.  One thing everyone can agree on – Still gives us a surprisingly human Lincoln, and Selby dives into this meaty role with gusto.

“The Heavens are Hung in Black” continues at the newly renovated Ford’s Theater through March 8.  For tickets call (202) 397-SEAT or go online to

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