The producers, cast, and crew of Lincoln and God must have felt like God was out of town on Friday night as their production experienced one calamity after another. The computer system was down making things difficult for the Box Office but the biggest misfortune of the evening came two hours before curtain when the show’s leading actress playing Mary Todd Lincoln had to be taken to the hospital. Thankfully, she’s OK but she was unable to perform leaving Mrs. Lincoln’s shoes to be filled by costumer and actress Shirley “Shirl” Weaver. Ms. Weaver had been cast to play several small, minor roles in the production but was thrust into the pivotal role and I must say she performed admirably considering the situation. Other parts had to be juggled and Ms. Weaver, understandably, needed to carry script pages with her throughout the evening. There was a scene listed in program set at Ford’s Theatre but not performed.
I am confident this woeful turn of events threw the entire cast off balance resulting in missed cues and forgotten lines. Consequently, out of respect for the cast and production team and after talking with my editor, I am not going to review this production in the traditional sense with the inclusion of stars or endorsements, or lack thereof. I will, however, share some thoughts from the evening.
The two-act drama explores Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with God. Covering the four-year span of time Lincoln was in office, playwright Anthony E. Gallo offers a series of vignettes that that reflects the President’s views, beliefs, and questions about God, church-going, and moral decisions. Meticulously researched, the story focuses on Lincoln’s discussions with Rev. Phineas Densmore Gurley, the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. In the audience discussion with the playwright following the production, Mr. Gallo made clear his point of view that is the foundation of the play: Lincoln was an instrument of God’s will.
While I am always attracted to stories of humanity’s experience with the Divine, Mr. Gallo’s script did not provide enough authenticity to hold my attention. Many lines seem like speeches or recitations rather than realistic dialogue. Too many scenes opened with dry exposition. Ultimately, it felt more like a historical review than a drama about a man struggling to understand God in the midst of the death of his son, the mental deterioration of his wife, and the fight to maintain the unity of the United States in the midst of slavery, secession, and war.
In spite of the dark cloud that seemed to be hanging over the production, there were a number of bright spots.
While it is always difficult to portray an iconic figure, James McDaniel as Abraham Lincoln delivered a superb performance. In an understated way, he commanded attention while on stage and communicated vulnerability as the country’s leader during a time of instability and conflict. McDaniel successfully conveyed a tenderness towards Mary Todd and Lincoln’s despair over the loss of two sons. I found the less-than-authentic beard and wig to be very distracting but it spoke well of Mr. McDaniel’s talent that he was quite believable in spite of it.
David Weaver in the role of Rev. Gurley looked the part of a 19th century pastor. Weaver’s bio says this is a “rare stage appearance” as he is more often found doing technical support for productions. I look forward to seeing him grow as an actor because his face is expressive and he is quite earnest in the role.
Mark Mueller’s performance as the President’s chief of staff, John “Nico” Hay, was particularly noteworthy. As Rev. Gurley delivered Lincoln’s eulogy, my attention was riveted on Mueller in the background as he cleared the President’s office. With an authentic mournful demeanor and subtle actions such as a tender stroke of Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, Mueller expressed his character’s deep sense of loss.
ZSun-nee Matema was completely underutilized in her role as former slave Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker, and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln. She shined in the unfortunately rare moments when she had a line to say or action to perform.
Pat Martin (Benjamin Helm, Captain Holmes, John Wilkes Booth) and Sherman McDaniel (Emily Todd Helm) portrayed supporting characters. Even Director Lenny Levy played several roles although he seemed distracted while on stage.
While the set was quite sparse, the costumes (especially the dresses) make up for it in creating a sense of time and place. I did have one issue with the staging. The audience was seated on three sides of the performance area and I was concerned that folks sitting on the sides experienced far less impact from Lincoln’s speeches because the orations were staged so close to the front of the “stage.’
As Mr. Gallo said while informing us of the casting changes and challenges, “The show must go on!” And it surely did. Kudos to the entire production team for surmounting the obstacles.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
The Seventh Street Playhouse’s production of Lincoln and God continues through August 5, 2012 at Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway in Greenbelt, MD. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or by calling (301) 441-8770.