Scenes from a new play that goes beyond the Honest Abe myth to explore the 16th president's torments and humor will cap a star-studded night Wednesday at Ford's Theatre to celebrate its $25 million makeover.
"The Heavens are Hung in Black" recently made its world premiere at the theater, which is reopening after an 18-month renovation that includes new, more comfortable seats, a revamped museum opening this spring and a new lobby that showcases the bloodstained coat that Abraham Lincoln wore when he was shot in 1865.
"You can experience the myth in a very moving way by going to the Lincoln Memorial ... That's not what I was writing about," said playwright James Still. "It's sort of when he gets off of that big chair in the memorial, then what happens?"
President Barack Obama, who has evoked Lincoln's legacy, studying his words for the inauguration and using the same Bible to take the oath of office, has been invited to attend the Wednesday gala before he flies to Illinois for the celebration of Lincoln's 200th birthday. Besides scenes from the play, tribute performances for Lincoln will include appearances by Katie Couric, Kelsey Grammer, James Earl Jones and others on stage. Sidney Poitier and George Lucas will be presented the Lincoln Medal.
The production of the new play, nearly three hours in length, reflects a shift in the theater's programming strategy, which was more often known for its light, tourist-friendly fare. The theater now wants to focus on education and the American experience.
"We've done plays about Lincoln in the past, but I'm not sure we've done anything as ambitious as this project," theater director Paul Tetreault said. "I think we're going to be focused on more important work. It might be funny, it might be serious."
Still's play follows Lincoln's challenges in 1862: The death of his son Willie, the pressures of the Civil War and the president's insomnia as he debated issuing the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves. Amid all the political dilemmas, Lincoln mourns with his wife, Mary Todd, and 9-year-old son Tad over their loss of Willie. And he's besieged with White House visitors begging for pardons for their loved ones.
The weight torments Lincoln — and yet he maintains his good humor, both in real life and in Still's play.
"I believe you're short enough, I could lick salt off the top of your head," Lincoln jokes with former political rival Stephen Douglas in one scene.
Memories of assassination still linger
Still worked on the play more than three years, reading Lincoln's speeches and traveling to Springfield, Ill., to see the family house. He found many parallels between Lincoln's day and the recent presidential campaign.
"For me, it's kind of a 'what if' moment," Still said of his play concluding with Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. "What if Lincoln had known what might be waiting 147 years in the future?"
The starring role went to actor David Selby, who has grown a dark beard and a tangled mess of hair. Even without the top hat, Selby, a familiar face from the 1980s TV series "Falcon Crest," bears a striking resemblance to the 16th president.
At Ford's, the theater box where Lincoln was shot is still dressed with flags and an image of George Washington, as it had been when the president came to see a performance of "Our American Cousin," less than two weeks after the Civil War had ended.
"Imagine, the theater is full. The orchestra conductor could see the president coming" in from the back, Tetreault said. "They stop the action on the stage, the orchestra played 'Hail to the Chief' ... and the audience broke out into applause."
John Wilkes Booth struck less than two hours later.
Ford's was closed for many years after the April 14, 1865, assassination, and only reopened as a theater in 1968. Today's theater, which draws about 1 million visitors a year, is a historical recreation, though not exact, of how the playhouse looked in Lincoln's day based on the photographs of Mathew Brady.
The newest renovations make it a better space for audiences, replacing the uncomfortable wooden-back chairs with 658 plush maroon seats, fewer obstructed views, improved acoustics and new heat and air conditioning systems.
Future plans call for building a Lincoln Center for Education and Leadership across the street as part of a $50 million-plus capital campaign. Much of the fundraising is already complete.