Melissa Gilbert and Mark Kenneth Smaltz in ‘If Only.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Thomas Klingenstein’s If Only (originally titled Mr. Lincoln) is an historical “what if” drama about race relations whose timing in this post-Charlottesville environment is the best thing about it. On the one hand, it doesn’t offer many new particulars or insights regarding the legacy of Civil War issues that continue to embroil our national dialogue; on the other, it does invite us to contemplate the intriguing possibility of a situation in which, during the late 19th century, an upper-class white woman and a former runaway slave might have been more than just friends.
The play is set in 1901, on an evening in New York. Melissa Gilbert, who has had a distinguished career following her childhood fame on “Little House on the Prairie,” plays the repressed, middle-aged Ann Astercott. Her husband, Henry (Richmond Hoxie), a socially prominent New York businessman, behaves toward his coddled wife much like Torvald does toward Nora in A Doll’s House. Also present is a little girl named Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), a tiny orphan taken in by Ann, who hopes to help the child break through the silence that descended after she saw her parents die in an accident.
Shortly after the play begins, Henry departs, leaving Ann alone with Sophie. A few minutes later, Ann is visited by Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), a distinguished-looking black man, whom she’s invited to her home after seeing him at the funeral of a mutual friend. Except for a brief scene with the child at the very end, the remainder of the 90-minute play shows only Ann and Samuel; with some revisions, the play would be stronger without the red herring presences of Henry and Sophie.
Samuel, who lives in Chicago, hasn’t seen Ann since 1865, when she, serving as a nurse, cared for him at a military hospital after he was wounded fighting for the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, the so-called “First Colored Infantry,” led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick in the movie Glory.) Feeling trapped by the life she’s been living, Ann has invited Samuel over to reminisce about their long-ago friendship.
Samuel, who the play says became Abraham Lincoln’s valet, later became a history teacher. (Neither Samuel nor Ann—her last name as much a fabrication as her character—are based on real people, although Lincoln did have a black valet named William H. Johnson, who died of smallpox in 1864.) This is a playwriting convenience that allows Samuel’s conversation with Ann—conducted in conjunction-free, artificial prose designed to sound like 19th-century discourse—to revisit not only Civil War events but also their mutual idolization of the 16th president.
Samuel even insists on reading with Ann passages from a Lincoln-Douglas debate, one of which expresses Lincoln’s argument that, while he was advocating for racial equality, he wasn’t advocating for “Negroes” to vote, serve as jurors, or marry whites.
Whenever possible, the dialogue hints at metaphorical relationships between the historical events and the incipient romantic relationship between Samuel and Ann during his recovery; the word “color” shows up often in one context or the other. Ann’s reluctance to go further at the time is indirectly linked to the need for social progress to happen gradually. For example, Samuel says: “As with a person, Mrs. Astorcott, when a country is closed to the truth, you cannot force her to open her eyes all at once. You must let the light in slowly.”
Under Christopher McElroen’s restrained direction, the genteel drawing room ambience is ruffled by emotional friction at only one or two points; mainly, we listen to a bland discussion drama filled with historical pedagogy, including talk about things like Lincoln’s style; too often, the playwright resorts to having characters read from books or letters. Running beneath it all is a subtext obliquely referencing the still simmering love of Ann and Samuel. The notion that things might have worked out differently had Lincoln lived remains unfulfilled and barely credible.
William Boles’s Victorian parlor setting, Becca Jeffords’s gaslight-like lighting, and Becca Manning’s period garb help convey the stuffy atmosphere. Gilbert and Smaltz offer subdued, intelligent performances; however, despite the Civil War background and the potentially provocative premise, the play’s pretensions, sleepy pacing, and lack of dramatic action keep their thespic canons from exploding. If only . . .
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through September 17
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).