Playwright Thomas Klingenstein has an extraordinary imagination. This fascinating story conjures two irreconcilable characters thrown together 36 years after they met in 1865 and idealistically posits what might have been…had President Lincoln lived. Of course things would not have been as simple as the phrase implies.
It’s 1901. Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) reads aloud while writing in her journal. A hospital nurse at the end of The Civil War, that period continues to occupy a large private realm of emotions. Recollections are honest, sentimental, and compassionate. The only parentheses in which these qualities can be channeled in her current life are those spent with Sophie (Korrine Tetlow), a young orphan staying for some undetermined time.
Having married for security, Ann has assumed her role with grace and forbearance, subjugating the character we hear when she writes. Husband Henry (a yoeman-like Richmond Hoxie), who does she-knows-not-what with stocks, is conservative and controlling. His wife consistently defers. Even her hero, Abraham Lincoln, whose bust adorns the desk, is dismissed by him as “just a politician and a rail-splitter at that.”
Tonight, while Henry attends a meeting of The Monuments Committee, Ann will, with his permission, host a former patient who’s visiting New York. She’s extremely (palpably) nervous. Because of the setting and circumstances, it’s startling to see that guest Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) is a black man. The two were, it seems, brought together by Lincoln, ostensibly so that the president’s wounded valet would receive best care. An unexpected relationship burgeoned.
The well researched play is as enamored of Lincoln as its two protagonists, yet expresses the president’s beliefs without rose colored glasses. History, politics, social mores, and pragmatism come head to head. Though it takes a bit longer than it might to achieve momentum, the piece vividly manifests personalities. The ensuing push/pull is engaging and sympathetic.
Melissa Gilbert and Richmond Hoxie
Caveat: Johnson is a gentleman, immensely well spoken and turned out, now a history teacher in Chicago. It would help the otherwise credible piece to briefly learn how this former slave and butler landed in the White House and had been educated. (Manner can be emulated.)
Melissa Gilbert, who made her stage debut in 1979 as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, may always be best remembered for her role as Laura Ingalls Wilder on television’s Little House on the Prairie. In fact, the actress has done a great deal of theater. Here, she manifests anxiety, repression, frustration, affection, and halting, then soaring pleasure with equal skill. Gilbert is a good physical as well as emotional thespian utilizing posture, hands, and moves to embody feelings. Her speech is just a bit stilted at the start but sure to iron out with performance.
Mark Kenneth Smaltz is a living, breathing Samuel Johnson, completely natural in a role played as if he walked off the street (in the earlier era). Johnson’s proud, articulate, masculine persona couldn’t be better served. It’s easy to see how Ann might have been drawn to him. Tenderness and respect are visceral. The character is unexpectedly elegant as written and directed and believably realized as such. Smaltz communicates a great deal simply looking at his former nurse.
Director Christopher McElroen brings to life two unique characters with skill and subtlety. Emotional revelations and the wrestling of pretense with devotion is particularly adroit. Simply moving furniture around the room becomes surprisingly intimate. Ann speaks to Sophia of her charge’s enviable joy, however, while the child herself never cracks a smile.
William Boles Scenic Design is spot-on- well designed, well executed and beautifully detailed. Costumes by Kimberly Manning follow suit perfectly depicting era and character.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Melissa Gilbert and Mark Kenneth Smaltz
If Only…A Love Story by Thomas Klingenstein
Directed by Christopher McElroen
Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street
Though September 17, 2017