The Heavens are Hung in Black brings history alive

The Heavens are Hung in Black brings history alive
(front, l to r) Darren Jones, Kelsey Colleen Melvin and Lawrence Grimm with the cast of Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere of THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK by James Still, directed by Louis Contey. Photo by Evan Hanover.

"The war might well be a divine punishment for the evil of slavery."  From Lincoln's 2nd inaugural address, March 4, 1865.

John Hay, Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis, William Seward, Edwin Booth, John Brown, Billy Brown, Dred Scott, Uncle Tom, Stephen Douglas were among the figures from the past that were on stage at Shattered Globe's Chicago Premiere of THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK--a poignant look inside the head of Abraham Lincoln as he struggled with the moral issues of the war and whether it is more important to preserve the nation or fight for liberty.

(left to right) Brad Woodard, Lawrence Grimm and Don Bender in Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere of THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK by James Still, directed by Louis Contey. Photo by Evan Hanover.

(left to right) Brad Woodard, Lawrence Grimm and Don Bender. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Presented for the first time in the “Land of Lincoln" at the Wit Theater, THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK is Pulitzer Prize nominee James Still’s personal interpretation of the fevered, emotional months between the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, and the signing of The Emancipation Proclamation.

“The Heavens are Hung in Black" portrays a transformational moment in Abraham Lincoln’s life and worldview,” comments Director Louis Contey. “In 1862, after nearly a year of bloody civil war, Lincoln must find a way of elevating the purpose of the conflict and save the Union. It is said that the office of President changes the individual who occupies it. With his conscience gnawing at him Lincoln begins to evolve as he considers the virtues and controversy of emancipation. The play, for me, embodies the essence of moral leadership and the idea of doing the right thing for the right reason, or as Lincoln himself states, listening ‘to the better angels of our nature’.”

As Lincoln's famous adversaries and unnamed soldiers walk through his waking life and his dreams, he struggles walking the fine line between conscience and politics.

What's right? What's wrong? He seems to be too aggressive for the Democrats and too weak for the radical Republicans. Not to mention, the war is not going well and his General, McClellan, is no where to be found.

(left to right) Don Bender, Leo Sharkey and Lawrence Grimm in Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere of THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK by James Still, directed by Louis Contey. Photo by Evan Hanover.

(left to right) Don Bender, Leo Sharkey and Lawrence Grimm. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Lawrence Grimm is remarkable as Abraham Lincoln capturing both his persona and his soul. Linda Reiter as Lincoln’s needy and emotionally unbalanced wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, whom Lincoln often called "mother" was perfection.  Tad, his impish youngest son, played beautifully by Leo Sharkey is a delight.

(left to right) Lawrence Grimm and Linda Reiter. Photo by Evan Hanover

Other standouts are Drew Schad (as John Hay), Brad Woodard (Stephen Douglas), Don Bender (as both Jefferson Davis and Edwin Booth), Zach Bloomfield (John Brown) and Tim Newell (Walt Whitman).

The outstanding 14-member cast had to play multiple roles to represent all the characters in the play with Darren Jones doing a journeyman's job portraying 6 characters--Dred Scott, Theophilus Hammond, Uncle Tom, the Butler, a janitor and a 21st century man while Kate Harris took on the roles of Mrs. Winston, Westmoreland and a soldier.

Characters, past and present, dating from the Revolutionary War to current day appeared both in Lincoln's dreams and fantasies and his waking life.

Dark, yes but there are lighter moments. We see the softer side of Lincoln as he plays with his son, comforts his wife, talks to an old friend from Springfield, walks in on a rehearsal of Shakespeare (a hilarious scene at the beginning of Act II) and jests with his staff.

And yes, there is humor and, of course, Lincoln's storytelling, was there.

  • Rating: Highly recommended
  • What: The Heavens Are Hung in Black
  • Who: Shattered Globe Theatre
  • Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
  • When: Thurs-Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 3 pm.
  • Run: now through October 21
  • Tickets:  773.975.8150 or online
  • Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

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