Fritz Klein has become Springfield’s go-to Abraham Lincoln presenter. He’s all over town — in “History Comes Alive” presentations, at news conferences, chiming in on tourism presentations. And now he’s omnipresent in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s production of James Still’s play, “The Heavens Are Hung in Black.”
Except for a few Walt Whitman interludes, Klein is in every scene and on stage for more than two hours of the two-hour, 20-minute production. It’s a tour-de-force of endurance and line memorization, if nothing else.
But there is, in fact, something else. Klein also turns out to be the best actor in almost every scene, and this in a 20-some-character play that goes deep into central Illinois’ semipro acting community. “Heavens” is a quasi-mystical, highly imaginative look at Lincoln’s decision to propose the Emancipation Proclamation, with sidewise looks at military discipline, Gen. George McClellan’s “slows,” the Lincolns’ marriage, and the burden of the presidency. It’s complicated enough that the program includes a page with mini-bios of a dozen of the more-or-less major characters.
The play originally was commissioned for the Lincoln birthday bicentennial in 2009, as the inaugural production at the revamped Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The presidential museum, however, got an advance look at the script, and Phil Funkenbusch, who produced and directed the local version, says he’s been champing at the bit for nearly four years to put it on here.
One reason probably is that, although most of “Heavens” is staged around (and briefly beneath) Lincoln’s White House desk, what the play calls “the busy wilderness of Springfield” also plays no small role. One scene features a three-panel, blown-up photo of part of the Old Capitol square during the Lincoln family’s years in town, and both Abraham and Mary Lincoln (played by Pam Brown), remember the city wistfully. “Washington,” laments Mary, “lacks Springfield’s impulsive generosity.”
“Heavens” gets talky every now and then, delving, for instance, into the high weeds of the Dred Scott decision. And several characters, especially abolitionist John Brown (Patrick Foster) and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Stephan Kaplan) suffer from almost comically fake beards. As compensation, perhaps, Rick Dunham’s usual Elvis Himselvis pompadour adds color — and a couple inches in height — to Dunham’s portrayal of the shade of Stephen Douglas.
Otherwise, Funkenbusch’s staging is impeccable, thanks in great part to the availability of the presidential museum’s Union Theater. Nowhere else in town offers the same combination of technical sophistication and audience intimacy, not to mention the museum’s overall Lincoln aura. (Not that those of us attending Sunday’s matinee had a chance to enjoy any aura; a gauntlet of museum workers whisked us into the theater, apparently so no one got an illicit museum tour as a bonus for our $18 “Heavens” ticket.)
Supporting cast Pam Brown, almost as familiar to Springfieldians as Klein’s Abe, is a sympathetic and surprisingly vivacious Mary. Other supporting actors of note include Lucas McQuillan as Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, Matthew Donathan and Alex Remolina, portraying the scene-stealing Lincoln boys, and Lincoln Ghost Tour impresario Garret Moffett as the bluff bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. Corey M. Morrison deserves some kind of award for playing every black character — including an interesting one in the final scene about whom I’ll say no more.
James Daniels might be the only “Heavens” actor whose stage presence matches Klein’s — no small thing, since Daniels portrays 19th-century stage star Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) in a scene that culminates in a Booth vs. Lincoln Shakespearean poetry slam. “Few die well that die in battle,” Lincoln concludes, reflecting his anguish at the Civil War’s carnage.
Time after time, Klein’s Lincoln pulls you in, from romping around his desk as Tad’s horsie to solemn debates with Stanton over whether to pardon sleepy Union sentries, to awkwardly consoling Mary over the shattering death of 11-year-old Willy. In the end, “Heavens’ is hostage to its Lincoln, and Fritz Klein is up to the job.