|Melissa Gilbert and Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Carol Rosegg|
By Thomas Klingenstein
Directed by Christopher McElroen
Cherry Lane Theatre
Through Sept. 17
By Lauren Yarger
If only all plays could be so lyrical, eloquent and timely. . .
Thomas Klingenstein's poignant new play If Only, getting a limited Off-Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Sept. 17, imagines what race relations in our country might be like had President Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated.
Set 36 years after John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot at Ford's Theater, the play follows the reunion of two people who called President Abraham Lincoln “friend.” Ann Astorcott ("Little House on the Prairie"'s Melissa Gilbert), is a stifled New York society housewife who recently took in a mute orphan named Sophie (Korinne Tetlow) to do something useful with her life. Being a housewife is rather unfulfilling for the woman who met Lincoln and served at a hospital during the war. That is where she met Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), a runaway slave who went on to serve as Lincoln's valet. All these years later, Samuel has been in contact and is coming for a visit.
Inattentive husband, Henry (Richmond Hoxie), agrees to allow Ann to have a visitor -- just another whim he gives in to as proof of his love for the wife he doesn't quite understand. He doesn't get her obsession with Lincoln, whom he accuses her of giving deity status thanks to a bust she keeps on her desk.
"Not a god," she replies, "But as perfect as God made a man."
He shrugs off the visit as unimportant and leaves to attend a meeting. What he doesn't realize is that Lincoln represented a hope of how things might have been not only for racial relations in America, but for possibilities of marriage between blacks and whites -- that is to say, between Samuel and Ann.
During their visit, it becomes clear that this couple shared a great love and that both still care deeply, though Ann is in denial and pretends not to remember some of their cherished moments together. Their conversation is engaging, intellectual and stimulating about everything from how to re-arrange the apartment (beautifully appointed in Victorian style by Scenic Designer William Boles) to the complexities of Lincoln's plan to make -- or not make, as the debate ensues -- blacks and whites equal.
Their discourse is a sharp contrast to the conversation between Ann and Henry, where the couple talks in distracted fashion without ever communicating. Ann's primary means of expression are a story-journal she keeps (which alludes to her experiences with Lincoln and Samuel) and which she reads aloud to Sophie. In subtle direction, we see that Samuel, in offering a pillow to Ann, is much more attentive to her real needs than her husband, who is more obsessed with the inanimate portrait of his perfect image of his wife that hangs in the parlor.
Klingenstein's dialogue is eloquent and lyrical. Combined with subtle lighting (Design by Becca Jeffords) and muted colors and tones in the set and costumes (Design by Kimberly Manning), Director Christopher McElroen transports us back in time while spotlighting issues about race that, in many ways, don't seem all that different in 2017. It's a skillful journey. Klingenstein, a New York-based playwright whose work has been presented at The Lark where If Only was developed, has another play from the era, Douglass, which premiered last year in Chicago.
Gilbert delivers layers for Ann, taking her from the wife who doesn't want to upset Henry in the slightest to the intelligent woman hiding underneath the norm demanded by society. This woman isn't afraid to speak her mind and expound ideas that would upset a great many in the country. Smaltz portrays Samuel as elegant, caring, patient and tolerant, as he understands that change can't come all at once.
"Memory cannot reshape the soul," and "anger has no logic all its own," he observes in some of the thought-provoking statements that pepper the conversation. Samuel has a way of retelling history (he's a teacher of it) that makes it real -- much like the gift of this playwright has in bringing the past to the present in just 85 minutes without intermission..
If Only runs only through Sept. 17 at the Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St.
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