Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Gaming Table
Ford's Theatre commissioned playwright Richard Hellesen to create the play to commemorate the opening of its Center for Education and Leadership, which explores the immediate aftermath of Lincoln's assassination and the effect of his presidency on the nation's history. The playwright begins with the two documented meetings between the president and the respected abolitionist, and delves into their contrasting views of the future.
After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Douglass wanted to share his concerns that the president had not gone far enough: in his vision, the Civil War must have an ultimate goal of complete abolition, not only emancipation. Douglass knows exactly what's at stake; as a fugitive slave, he must stay hidden during his trip from New York State to Washington lest he be taken into custody in Maryland, where he escaped from a plantation. He also chides Lincoln about the inequalities facing African Americans in the Union Army, such as lower wages than their white counterparts and the risk of being slaughtered when taken into Confederate custody as prisoners of war.
Hellesen also reveals some of Lincoln's less admirable views, such as his early support for repatriating African Americans to a colony in Haiti, and has Lincoln describe a proposed strategy of freeing slaves from plantations that might have been implemented had General William Sherman been stopped in his march to the sea. On the other hand, the playwright also slows things down by having Lincoln recite the full text of the Gettysburg Address and excerpts from some of his other major speeches.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson balances the two strong actors, allowing both to shine without either overshadowing the other. Selby, who previously played Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in The Heavens Are Hung in Black, ably brings the 16th president to life with a weary, hunched posture (not the straight posture one might expect from portraits of the tall man) and a countrified, surprisingly high-pitched voice. Wallace portrays Douglass with a commanding voice and a powerful stanceespecially notable because he learned the role in a week after the original actor withdrew because of health issues.
James Kronzer's beautiful, atmospheric set suggests the exterior walls of the White House in shimmering, translucent fabric, as well as the interior of Lincoln's rough office.