- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It’s an accepted fact that Abraham Lincoln loved theater, especially Shakespeare.

Hard to say what he would make of “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” a world premiere commission by Ford’s Theatre to commemorate the great man’s 200th birthday, but you probably could surmise that he would rather be at one of his wife’s cockamamie seances than endure this loggy and incongruously wacky play.

Allusions to “Hamlet” and “Richard III” are woven through the historic drama, but that’s about all playwright James Still has in common with the Bard other than a three-hour length with two intermissions, which, in the case of “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” zips along about as agreeably as a tax audit.

Dioramas have more animation and spark than this production, and at least the one at Gettysburg has a light-up map so you can look at something interesting.

The newly revamped and refurbished Ford’s Theatre is beautiful, but the stage is quite deep, and rather than work with those limitations, director Stephen Rayne has pushed much of the action to the far back, which gives the impression that the actors literally are lost in the dark. This may be merciful, given that the cast is burdened with stentorian, stillborn dialogue except for the times when Lincoln is forced to spout more folksy metaphors than a pea picker at a vegan cook-off.

Granted, “Heavens” takes place during a bleak period in Lincoln’s (David Selby, admirably craggy and Lincolnesque in the role) life: the five months in 1862 that included the death of his son Willie (James Chatham), the mounting pressures and casualties of the Civil War, and the president’s personal and political struggles leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The play reveals Lincoln to be a man of great sensitivity and intellect, someone who took every soldier’s death to heart, someone haunted and heroic and a man who tried to separate the issues of slavery and secession until his conscience could permit no further argument.

Even the relatively casual Lincoln devotee would know this already. The attempts to humanize the president are sometimes affecting, as when Lincoln disrupts Cabinet meetings to play boisterous games with his son Tad (Benjamin Cook) and goes to great lengths to pardon his child’s misbehaved toy soldier. On the other hand, his scenes with wife Mary (Robin Moseley) are awkward and stiff, as if they are on their first date rather than enduring nearly 20 years of marriage.

Perhaps the most bizarre personalizing has to do with Lincoln’s insomnia. It was widely known that Lincoln did not rest much, and Mr. Still dramatizes this in a series of mind-bending - and, one assumes, unintentionally hooty - dream sequences that act like a Rozerem sleep-aid commercial in reverse. Instead of an ordinary man dreaming of Lincoln, a talking beaver and an astronaut, here we have Lincoln lumbering through nocturnal visitations from Jefferson Davis (Edward James Hyland), Dred Scott (David Emerson Toney), John Brown (Norman Aronovic) and a fishing pole-toting Uncle Tom (Mr. Toney again) from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel.

David Selby portrays Abraham Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre production of “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” which commemorates the 16th president’s 200th birthday.

By the time Lincoln screws his courage to the sticking place and drafts the Emancipation Proclamation, he is receiving visions from the future in a jaw-droppingly mawkish denouement that the director asked critics not to give away.

Lincoln belongs to the ages. “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” just feels like one.

WHAT: “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” by James Still

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; special 11 a.m. matinee Feb. 19; noon matinees on Feb. 26 and March 5. Through March 8.

TICKETS: $16 to $52

PHONE: 800/899-2367

WEB SITE: www.fordstheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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