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Theater Review: “Necessary Sacrifices” at Ford’s Theatre

Playwright Richard Hellesen imagines historic meetings between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in this well-crafted world premiere.

David Selby as Abraham Lincoln and Craig Wallace as Frederick Douglass in the Ford’s Theatre world premiere production of Necessary Sacrifices. Photograph by T. Charles Erickson.

Abraham Lincoln wrestles with what’s morally right versus what’s politically feasible in Richard Hellesen’s arresting, if occasionally pedantic, new play, Necessary Sacrifices, at Ford’s Theatre through February 18. His partner in the struggle is Frederick Douglass, the celebrated African-American abolitionist, orator, and writer who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1838 and became a spokesman here and abroad for the cause. Douglass and Lincoln had two documented meetings at the White House during the Civil War, we’re told in the playbill. In Sacrifices, a world premiere commissioned by Ford’s, Hellesen has imagined what those encounters in the summers of 1863 and 1864 might have been like, based in part on both men’s public orations and Douglass’s many articles.

In this production, David Selby as Lincoln and Craig Wallace as Douglass make a convincing, contrasting duo in countenance, demeanor, and voice. The spirited conversations in which they engage evoke a fly-on-the-wall quality, giving the audience the sense of truly eavesdropping on history as it’s being made. This is Selby’s second outing as Lincoln at Ford’s. He played the president almost exactly three years ago in James Still’s The Heavens Are Hung in Black, commissioned by Ford’s to mark the reopening of the newly refurbished landmark theater. The lanky actor seems effortlessly to channel the great man in an inspired mix of folksiness—the high-pitched twang noted by those who actually heard Lincoln speak is jarring at first, then pleasurably realistic—warmth, melancholy, and political savvy.

Craig Wallace, however, only stepped into the role of Frederick Douglass near the end of the rehearsal period in January. (Actor David Emerson Toney, originally cast in the role, left the production for health reasons, as announced by Ford’s on January 18.) With his resonant, Shakespeare-honed baritone and authoritative physical presence, Wallace has ably taken up the Douglass mantle. Rarely on press night did he falter on a line, and when he did, he quickly recovered—impressive, as the role includes much densely worded text.

Which leads to a caveat about the way playwright Hellesen opens each act of this two-hour evening. Douglass is our narrator and our way into the play. In act one, Douglass enters to strains of Stephen Foster’s haunting 1854 song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” arranged by sound designer John Gromada. (Elsewhere in the play, Gromada supplies original tunes.) Douglass then addresses the audience with a speech about his own history and the misgivings that taint his admiration of President Lincoln. The speech has a whiff of academia and the printed page about it that implies the play will be a well-researched but rather dry business. Happily, that turns out not to be the case at all. Once Lincoln and Frederick Douglass inhabit the stage together under Jennifer L. Nelson’s solid, unfussy direction, the conversation ignites.

Hellesen weaves historical excerpts into the dialogue with sublety and not too often at the expense of a believable give and take. Only once, and to rather fine effect, does he veer from that style. Near the start of act two, seen through a gauzy scrim as if in flashback, Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address. Douglass, standing far away at the front edge of the stage, listens, occasionally interjects, and sadly shakes his head at “of the people, by the people, for the people.” The audience chuckles when he responds bitterly to his friend, George Stearns, who deems it a great speech. “Of course it was a great speech,” counters Douglass. “He always gives great speeches. That is no reason to keep supporting him”—echoes of some critics speaking of the current White House occupant.

Selby’s sly, earthy Lincoln and Wallace’s dignified, fiercely determined Douglass spar about war, peace, politics, and moral courage. Douglass confronts Lincoln about the discriminatory treatment of black recruits in the Union army and their worse fate when captured by Confederate forces. He decries what he views as Lincoln’s tardiness in signing the Emancipation Proclamation and urges the president to think seriously about the citizenship status of freed slaves after the war. (The play notes that Douglass also supported women’s suffrage but argued, first things first.) Lincoln, who fears he’ll lose the next election, warns Douglass of the danger of moving too fast for the electorate or even the Union military. In another telling moment, Selby’s Lincoln admits with embarrassment verging on physical pain how much he craves the power of the presidency, and fears it is the sin of pride. In some of the play’s best, most human moments, Hellesen imagines the two men finding common ground and a commmon bond in the pain of losing a child, the memory of a brutally hard upbringing, the loneliness of becoming a self-made man, and the sacrifice of devoting one’s life to a cause.

Wig and makeup designer Anne Nesmith deserves great credit for making the actors resemble their characters without any sense—at least not from Row H—of heavy glue and rubber deposits. The period costumes by Helen Huang look marvelously lived in—Lincoln’s frock coat and trousers are rumpled as you’d expect them to be in a Washington summer, and Douglass’s clothes reflect his intention always to maintain his free man’s dignity. Kramer’s luxuriously long beard as Stearns evokes ZZ Top as much as the mid-19th century.

The set by James Kronzer is handsome without being terribly atmospheric. Designed to fill the great breadth and height of the Ford’s stage, it almost evokes a certain White House feel in shape—three curved sections, with the center one moving forward to become Lincoln’s office. The set pieces have full scrims in front of them as each act opens, and painted onto the central scrim are huge clouds tinged with the pink of a sunset and the gathering clouds of a storm. The effect, enhanced by Dan Covey’s subtle lighting, reminds you of a museum diorama. This one is handsome and evocative, but frustratingly unspecific. When it rises, it reveals Lincoln in his cluttered White House office.

Still, it is the souls of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that we really want to see revealed on the Ford’s stage. The play’s more pedantic moments aside, Necessary Sacrifices gives us a mighty telling glimpse.

Necessary Sacrifices is at Ford’s Theatre through February 18. Tickets ($15 to $52) are available through the theatre’s website.