Honest Abe’s Spiritual Awakening in The Heavens Are Hung in Black

President Lincoln (Lawrence Grimm) and Mary Todd Lincoln (Linda Reiter). Photo by Evan Hanover. Shattered Globe Theatre presents the first in its all-Chicago premiere season, Pulitzer-nominee James Still’s The Heavens are Hung in Black, at Theater Wit through October 21, and directed by Louis Contey, his 22nd collaboration with the company, where he has rejoined as an ensemble member. Lanky Lawrence Grimm fills the stovepipe hat of Abraham Lincoln, having an Ebenezer Scrooge-scale infestation of ghosts to cajole and condemn his Civil War choices and question his stance on slavery, noting “being free doesn’t make them equal.” Lincoln’s lack of rest is likened to his wife Mary’s (ever-awesome Linda Reiter) lust for the occult (as well as boxes of gloves) after her favorite son Willie’s untimely death. “When I don’t sleep my dreams come looking for me” is how the president explains visitations by noted abolitionist John Brown (one of several roles played by Zach Bloomfield) and enslaved man Dred Scott (one of Darren Jones’ parts), who opines on colonization, “the twin sister of slavery.” He also debates visions of his old rival Stephen Douglas (Brad Woodard) and his new nemesis Jefferson Davis (Don Bender). Proto-POTUS entertains his multitudinous carnal and incarnate guests from his centrally located desk (tiny, serviceable set by Angela Weber Miller), under Ken Burnsian projections of slain soldiers: “only the dead have been an end to this war” (projections by  Michael Stanfill, who also designed lights, including period-appropriate footlights). Like in the seminal documentary, letter excerpts are also read as proto-tweets, often missives “free of any taint of personal triumph.” It's early in the war, and an off-stage General McClellan is stalled between D.C. and Richmond, making gross material transport miscalculations at Harper’s Ferry.  Lincoln is also troubled by the transitional nature of his swampy, temporary home: “everything here is unfinished,” referencing the Capitol Dome and the Washington Monument. Playwright Still, an artistic affiliate at American Blues Theater, was commissioned to write this work to open Washington's renovated Ford’s Theater in 2009, Lincoln’s birth bicentennial. Still has the why do you “say what you’re against, but not what you’re for” question covered. And he’s most successful with his meta-theatrical references, like Edwin Booth’s (also Bender) theater company’s interstitial rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Henry V, followed by Lincoln echoing those footsteps by walking amongst his own soldiers. Honest Abe also observes that Shakespeare kept so many deaths off-stage, and the president recites some of the canon, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” amidst cannons. The piece is, of course, appropriately staged in the Land of Lincoln, and, certainly timely with the country’s current defilement of all three branches of government. Lincoln says, “Why can’t Congress exhibit a grain of common sense?” The Heavens are Hung in Black runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3p; no show on October 7, and an added show on October 21 at 3pm. Tickets are $35. The play runs 2.5 hours with one intermission. There’s a Touch Tour/Audio Description show on October 6, and talkbacks are held following Sunday matinees.
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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.