I wasn't sure what to expect with the Indiana Repertory Theatre's season opening show, "The Heavens are Hung in Black." The play focuses on Abraham Lincoln's presidential term and in less gifted hands it could have become a dry historical drama. Instead it's a portrait of a tortured man. A man wracked with grief, who is forced to make some of the toughest political decisions of all time, all while desperately trying to hang on to his sanity.
The play was originally commissioned by the Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated, in Washington D.C. This being the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, there's no better time to bring it to an Indiana stage. It's relevance is obvious on that front, but its deeper significance becomes evident as the show progresses. America has a black president for the first time and Lincoln was the the man behind the Emancipation Proclamation which gave slave their freedom so many years ago.
The show is written by IRT's playwright-in-residence James Still. His deft skill at dialogue manages to infuse a sweet humor into the most dire of settings. Though it's clear Lincoln never forgets the nation's troubles, or his own, he still embraces every opportunity to share a laugh.
The extraordinary supporting cast elevates the entire show. Mary Todd Lincoln: the neglected wife, spiraling into madness; John Hay: the devoted aide; Stephen Douglas: the firecracker who opposes Lincoln's every decision; Edwin Booth: an actor full of pomp and Walt Whitman: the poet commenting on it all from a distance. Each of these characters and many others were played by wonderful actors who brought a rich depth to each scene.
The set has an open, airy feeling. It's designed to operate primarily as Lincoln's office, but a battle field with soldiers tents fill the background, giving the audience a constant reminder of the war being fought. The costumes were also impressive, giving the show an authentic feel and making it easier to get caught up in the building tension Lincoln faces.
The scene that opens the second act made the whole show for me. Lincoln has wandered into a theater to escape the rain and stumbles upon a practicing theater troupe. They invite him on stage and as they trade lines of Shakespeare, Lincoln adds a few of his own. Even though he is outside of the White House and away from his insufferable stream of staff members, you can immediately tell how heavy the war weighs on him. It's clear that the crushing pressure is something he never truly escapes, even in his sleep.
It's a tale of a turbulent time in our nation's history when one man struggled to lead, while everything around him, including his personal life, crumbled. Lincoln was one of the most fascinating people to lead this country and this play gives audiences an entrancing glimpse into his world.
Don't Miss the Show
Performances: The show runs until Saturday, Oct. 25 on IRT's Mainstage. Times for performances can be found at www.irtlive.com or by calling the IRT box office at (317) 635-5252.
Tickets: To purchase tickets call (317) 635-5252 or order online at www.irtlive.com Prices begin at $29 with discounts available for students.
The Indiana Repertory Theatre is located at 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, one-half block west of the Circle Center Mall between northbound Illinois Street and southbound Capitol Avenue.
Photo Courtesy of the Indiana Repertory Theatre