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Theatre in Review: If Only... (The American Vicarious/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Melissa Gilbert, Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Carol Rosegg

As the title suggests, If Only... is an exercise in wistful nostalgia, an evening-length recitation of what-might-have-beens. By the end, I was familiar with the feeling: If only the playwright, Thomas Klingenstein, had managed to work up some dramatic interest in his two main characters, a pair of old acquaintances who remain haunted by the specter of Abraham Lincoln thirty-five years after his assassination. The opportunities are there, but, despite a couple of fine performances and one or two interesting points about race in America, I'm afraid you'll have to settle for a rather too-polite serving of tea and sympathy.

A ninety-minute tête-à-tête, If Only... is, despite the presence of a couple of minor characters, essentially a two-hander focusing on Ann Astorcott, a wealthy New York matron, and Samuel Johnson, a history teacher from Chicago. In a way, it is a highly unorthodox meeting, for Ann is white, Samuel is black, and the year is 1901. They have a shared history, however: Samuel was, for a time, valet to Lincoln, and, later, a Union soldier. Ann, then a nurse, cared for the wounded Samuel; she was also acquainted with Lincoln, still the object of her hero-worship after so many years. Samuel and Ann run into each at the funeral of a mutual friend, but they have very different reasons for their little get-together: Ann, who lives a comfortable, but rudderless, existence, wants to relive her glory days, when her life was filled with purpose. Samuel, on the other hand, thinks they have unfinished business.

The idea of an interracial love affair at the turn of the last century certainly presents dramatic possibilities, but everyone in If Only... is too busy minding his or her manners for anything to happen. For most of its running time, it consists of Samuel pressing his case -- or trying to -- and Ann repeatedly deflecting him, preferring to focus on the glories of the sixteenth president. They certainly are made for each other: Their idea of a good time is to haul out a volume of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, reading them out loud and considering each point. When Lincoln is quoted as saying that giving citizenship rights to blacks doesn't mean allowing them to serve on juries or marry whites, Samuel notes, in soothing tones, "A man cannot always say what he means. Mr. Lincoln had to open the blinds slowly. He said he did not favor, and had not favored, social equality for the negro. But he did not say, as he had every opportunity to say, he would not favor it in the future."

Even with all its ready-for-the-op-ed-page dialogue, If Only... is a surprisingly ahistorical work. Despite his apparent status as a footnote to posterity, Johnson is a fictional character -- Lincoln had a valet named William Johnson, but he died of smallpox in 1864 -- and his tastefully repressed feelings for Ann are the stuff of old-style women's fiction. Samuel appears to have lived a relatively trouble-free life since the war's end, and there is no acknowledgment that black Americans might have had rocky times since the Emancipation Proclamation, what with segregation, poverty, and the Jim Crow laws, among other things. If Samuel has any role to play in Ann's life, it is that of that too-easy literary device, the Magical Negro, who arrives to shake up the white character's staid existence and empower her to stand up for herself.

Despite its generally becalmed atmosphere, If Only... makes for modestly pleasant viewing, thanks to the work of its leads under the direction of Christopher McElroen. Melissa Gilbert's Ann is very much a woman of her time, all airs and graces, coasting on a surface of conventional conversation. Bemoaning the construction of the new subways, she says, "I haven't even negotiated a truce with this new motor carriage." When asked about her husband's career, she responds, vaguely, that it has "something to do with shares, the stock market." But the actress also conveys the nagging dissatisfaction at her character's core, and has a dozen different ways of signaling her distress when forced to confront memories that she long ago stored away in the attic of her mind. (It must be noted that Gilbert, who is fifty-three, appears to be decades younger than the sixtyish Ann.) Mark Kenneth Smaltz's Samuel regards Ann with an intense gaze that wilts her pretenses, and he speaks with a quiet urgency when he insists that they revisit moments from the past that Ann would just as soon forget. This is not to say that If Only... ever stops to consider Samuel and Ann's chances for happiness together; to do so might stir things up, and we can't have that, can we?

In any case, If Only... looks great, thanks to William Boles' marvelously detailed parlor setting, its dark aqua wallpaper surrounded by copper-and-green borders, red velvet curtains, a globe chandelier, and furniture draped with fabric swatches, the result of Ann's latest shopping spree. Kimberly Manning's costumes are solid period creations and Becca Jeffords' lighting creates a plausible lamplit atmosphere, although -- no doubt following the director's instructions -- raises and lowers the light levels a little too bluntly in tune with the script's emotional shifts. Andy Evan Cohen's sound design includes a ragtime tune on the Victrola that is allowed to go on too long during the opening scene, becoming an irritant that distracts from the dialogue.

Despite a couple of moderately intense moments late in the evening, If Only... pretty much ends where it started, in a state of emotional stalemate, with Ann tearfully reading from a pack of old letters -- one of the playwright's straight-out-of-romance-fiction devices. This is probably the least disturbing play I've ever seen on the subject of this country's racial divide. I don't consider that to be a compliment. -- David Barbour

(28 August 2017)

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