Of the Play, for the Play

‘Heavens’ Marks Ford’s Reopening

Posted January 30, 2009 at 3:26pm

Distraught over the death of their 11-year-old son Willie, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, sought the help of mediums to hold séances in the White House to speak with their older son’s spirit.

Lincoln’s exit after one of these séances becomes the opening scene of “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” a play commissioned by Ford’s Theatre to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. The play’s world premiere

on Feb. 3 will also mark the opening of the theater following an 18-month renovation.

“Heavens” centers on the year 1862, the period of Willie’s death and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Playwright James Still said he wanted to capture the moment when Lincoln was dealing with a personal crisis (the death of Willie) and a public crisis (a country at war).

“That’s the stuff that makes a potentially meaningful theater,” said Still, who spent more than three years doing research and writing the play. “My goal is to create something that’s vivid and theatrical and memorable as possible. To do that you have to risk challenging people’s notions of who Lincoln was.”

Still said he also wanted to create a play that would make people relate to the former president. “We may not be the president of the U.S, but we are doing our own little battles all the time. A lot of us are trying to figure out how to live our lives in decent ways,” Still said.

Even though there were pressing issues he had to deal with in Washington, Lincoln still found time to play with his sons. At one important reception, Tad harnessed goats to a chair and drove them around the White House. While his wife was embarrassed, Lincoln was amused and sent a telegram to Mary Lincoln that read: “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well — especially the goats.”

On Feb. 20, 1862, Willie, whom many believed was like Lincoln — quiet, studious and friendly — died from what was likely typhoid fever. While trying to win a war, Lincoln helped his wife through the grieving process.

Over the course of the play, Lincoln receives dream visits from people whose life experiences might guide the president in making decisions about the Civil War. “One of the things I read early on in research that I kept coming across over and over again was the fact that [Lincoln] was someone who had a hard time sleeping. He was an insomniac,” Still said.

Among those who visited Lincoln in his sleep were John Brown, the abolitionist; Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln defeated in the 1860 presidential election; Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom in 1846; Walt Whitman, the American poet and journalist who nursed his wounded brother during the Civil War; and Uncle Tom, a fictional character and slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Edwin Booth, one of the greatest American actors of the 19th century and brother of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, also appears in the president’s sleep.

In fact, the play shows Lincoln wrestling with the idea of freeing slaves. While believing that slavery was wrong, Lincoln was also concerned about how emancipation would drive more states such as Delaware and Maryland toward the Confederacy. On Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing he would free the slaves in the Confederate states if the rebels did not join the Union by Jan. 1, 1863.

“Heavens” also features Lincoln’s conflict with his secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, over Lincoln’s tendency to pardon soldiers. Lincoln believed that soldiers were more useful to the army alive than dead.

Another element in the play was Lincoln’s fondness for William Shakespeare. In one letter to Shakespearean actor James Hackett, Lincoln mentioned having read “King Lear,” “Richard III,” “Henry VIII,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” Hackett was famous for playing Falstaff, a character who appeared in three Shakespeare plays.

Ironically, it was Lincoln’s love of the theater that led to his death. On Apr. 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth.

Directing “Heavens” is Stephen Rayne, whose other directing credits include “A View from the Bridge,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Hay Fever,” “Closer,” “Equus,” “House and Garden,” and “Macbeth” for the New York Art Festival.

Playing Lincoln is David Selby in his Ford’s Theatre debut. Selby has appeared in Broadway production of “The Heiress,” and “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” and several off-Broadway and Kennedy Center shows.

The cast also includes Norman Aronovic, Steven Carpenter, Jonathan Fielding, Michael Goodwin, Edward James Hyland, Beth Hylton, Michael Kramer, Robin Moseley, Hugh Nees, David Emerson Toney, Chaney Tullos, Jonathan Watkins, Scott Westerman, James Chatham, Benjamin Cook and Benjamin Schiffbauer.

“Heavens” will run until March 8.