Writhing suicides, drooling gluttons, fornicating bishops, and monster spiders all come looming and leering in the direction of the audience in Synetic Theater’s Dante, one of two outsize epics newly come to Washington stages this week. The other, a dream-struck historical pageant commissioned to open the overhauled Ford’s Theatre, runs so infernally long that its own eccentricities, manifold and astonishing though they are, come to feel widely spaced by comparison. Which means that, between the two, the Divine Comedy’s comparitively concise 90 minutes somehow feels like the less indulgent exercise.
Perhaps “ambitious” is a better word for The Heavens Are Hung In Black. A high-minded, low-impact meditation on the stresses and strategies at play in Abraham Lincoln’s office circa 1862, it invites the audience to consider not just the Rail Splitter from Springfield but all his ambitions, hopes, fears, and misgivings, plus the wrangling of his domestic advisers, the failings of his heel-dragging military commanders, and his wife’s increasing melancholia.
Add to all this the spirits of Dred Scott, Stephen A. Douglas, John Brown, and Lincoln’s dead son, all of whom visit the White House by turns to urge Lincoln on (or warn him off) as he weighs the moral imperative of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation against the political and military implications its publication would likely entail. Likewise a spectral Jefferson Davis, whose dreams seem to be bleeding into those of his Union antagonist, and (for whatever reason) the character of Uncle Tom, who…well, can we just agree that The Heavens Are Hung in Black is a trifle overstuffed? That way we can dispense with discussion of the 108-year-old soldier who turns up, late in the evening, to weigh in on the debate.
I hate to dismiss so blithely what’s obviously a Theatrical Event for the good people at Ford’s, and what must have been an epic effort on the part of playwright James Still. But there’s this uncomfortable fact on the stage, this awkward artifact that goes haltingly on for three acts and nearly three hours: a monumental play that clearly wants to soar, that wants to be stirring and grand and funny and personal all at once. Yet it also wants to live up to the occasion of the Ford’s relaunch and the bigger occasions (Lincoln’s bicentennial, the Obama moment) that frame it, but hasn’t found anything like a satisfying synthesis of its subjects, themes, and formal ambitions.
What’s left is moments, including the lovely one in which Lincoln, seeking shelter from a tempest, ducks into the theater from the back, surprising a company of actors rehearsing Henry V. One of them, you won’t be startled to hear, is named Booth—no, not that one, but his once more famous brother, the tragedian Edwin. (Still does at least seem to understand that you can only take the historical-cameo thing so far without tipping your story over into camp.)
As the actors talk warmly of writers, and language, and the leadership lessons in Henry V, Lincoln surprises them by quoting a passage from memory— not the warrior king’s defense of a leader’s right to send men to die in battle but a common soldier’s warning about the “heavy reckoning” that will come due for every leader “if the cause be not good.”
And in this big-hearted, ungainly portrait of a man wrestling with his conscience amid the greatest slaughter America has ever suffered—a slaughter we visited, remember, upon ourselves—Shakespeare’s words, reshaped to serve another author’s ends, do their wonted work, and an old kind of theatrical magic is kindled. Even if it’s only for a moment.