Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Off-Broadway Theater Review: If Only -- TOP PICK

Melissa Gilbert and Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Carol Rosegg

If Only
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.

-- No content notes

No comments:

Gracewell Prodiuctions

Gracewell Prodiuctions
Producing Inspiring Works in the Arts
Custom Search
Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2024 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

All Posts on this Blog