Ford’s Theater has reopened its doors after a lengthy renovation in time to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth with a newly commissioned play about the Civil War president by writer James Still. Called “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” it weaves a revealing but excessive tapestry about the much chronicled leader at a time of personal and professional crisis.
President Lincoln was known as a brooder during the best of times, and 1862 was anything but. His family was in mourning over the death of his son Willie, the Union’s offensive against Richmond was stalled, and his leadership was openly mocked by his own appointees. Lincoln’s view from the White House was bleak.
Actor Richard Selby portrays this tortured and complicated soul in an insightful, homespun fashion. Tall and angular, affecting a high-pitched Midwestern twang, he could have stepped from a faded Matthew Brady photograph. It’s an enormously demanding role of “Cyrano”-like dimension that requires almost continual presence on stage and dominance of virtually every scene.
Still’s plotless “Heavens” is a broadly conceived tableau of a sleep-deprived executive coping with his daily regimen — perpetual visits from frustrated officials and anguished citizens, and interruptions from his famously bipolar wife Mary Todd, played with delicacy by Robin Moseley. Breaks of levity come from mischievous son Tad (Benjamin Cook), and his own colorful yarns.
The three-act play includes numerous imagined visits by luminaries of the era in dream sequences where the nuances of emancipation and other period topics are debated. The poet Walt Whitman, abolitionist John Brown, slave Dred Scott and politician Stephen Douglas are among those envisioned in this offbeat historical tour, all earnestly depicted under Stephen Rayne’s direction.
The most effective is an anguished exchange about the ugliness of war with Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Edward James Hyland) and two rival leaders clad in white nightshirts. Another encounter with the actor Edwin Booth (Michael Kramer) rehearsing “Henry V” is also enjoyable.
The result is an intensely personal perspective on a humble man who is being remembered in exhibits throughout this city. Occurring on the actual stage where the assassin John Wilkes Booth made his escape, the drama is especially moving.
Yet “Heavens” is not likely to find commercial success beyond this venue. Running at almost three hours, it exhausts its message well before the closing scenes, while the absence of plot or suspense renders its meandering format tedious. Although the treatise on the frustrations of war offers obvious current relevance, the play remains a timepiece most suitable for this bicentennial occasion.