Susan Granger’s review of “If Only… a Love Story” (Cherry Lane Theatre/Off-Broadway)
Set in 1901, Thomas Klingenstein’s historical drama riffs on the “What If” supposition, pivoting on what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated.
Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) met Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) 36 years earlier, when she was a Manhattan socialite and he was a well-educated former slave.
During the Civil War, young Ann, who was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, worked as a nurse. When she begged Lincoln for fresh milk for the soldiers, he arranged it. In return, the President asked her to visit Samuel, a wounded Union soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, known as the ‘first colored Infantry.’
That’s how they met, but it was an era when any sort of romantic relationship between them was unthinkable.
“Mr. Abraham Lincoln was our match-maker,” Samuel recalls, when they see each other again.
What follows is an 80-minute conversation between them, delving not only into how their respective lives might have been different if Lincoln had lived but also how the country might have changed.
Ann’s wealthy businessman husband Henry (Richmond Hoxie) has gone out for the evening, leaving Ann with Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), their adopted six year-old who has been mute since she saw her parents killed by a runaway horse-and-carriage. The play is bookended by Ann reading to Sophie.
Like his previous work, “Douglass,” revolving around the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, playwright Thomas Klingenstein evokes the era of slavery, abolitionists and racial privilege. The characters are fictitious, although Lincoln did have a black valet, William H. Johnson.
Although she’s still best-known for TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa Gilbert has done a creditable amount of stage work and knows how to use her voice to manipulate an audience. Complementing her, Mark Kenneth Smaltz has a captivating presence.
But Christopher McElroen’s sedentary staging stultifies, rather than enliven, the conversation between Ann and Samuel. By placing them in armchairs facing each other, McEloen forces the audience to watch them in profile, and it’s not much help when he has them exchange seats.
William Boles’ Victorian parlor design, Becca Jefford’s gaslight lighting and Kimberly Manning’s period costumes add authenticity.
“If Only…a Love Story” plays through Sept. 17, 2017, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-989-2020 or www.cherrylanetheatre.org