Stories about crossing class, caste and racial divides offer rich theatrical and cinematic possibilities. Far From Heaven, a recent example as a 2002 movie and 2013 Off Broadway musical, explores an American upper-class 1950s suburban wife and mother, her closeted gay husband, and her socially thwarted relations with a genteel Negro workman. We feel limits in a life assembled, a yearning for what might be, a resolution through loss and new possibilities. Some of these themes are picked up by playwright Thomas Klingenstein at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a work formerly titled Mr. Lincoln, now If Only, about an upper-class white woman in 1901 NYC who invites an old romantic partner, once a runaway slave, for a social call.
This play is full of extraneous exposition blanketing a core of rich yet unrealized possibilities and stilted, fairly sedentary direction by Christopher McElroen. Middle-aged and childless Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) and her wealthy husband Henry (Richmond Hoxie) live a privileged life. We see them together just long enough at the beginning of the play to witness how he indulges such romantic whims as bringing orphan Sophie (Korinne Tetlow) into their home, and how he patronizes Ann and expects her to follow social norms. Indulgence and comfort define Ann’s life, as long as she follows the rules of the road. When Henry departs for an evening appointment (never to return) and young Sophie toddles off to bed, the evening’s visitor, Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), lets himself in.
The core of the play is the single scene of their encounter, which Ann has arranged with nebulous motivations. Was it truly a chance encounter that inspired her to invite Samuel or was it something more calculated? We learn that Ann was once a Bohemian who lived a life of the mind downtown, with frequent visits to an inn called the Astor House, before settling for a 30-year span of ease and comfort and social conventions. Samuel was a runaway slave who worked his way into being a teacher. Is Ann frustrated with her life in general or has there been some specific, recent event driving her to stir things up? What has been her midlife crisis that led her to try to make sense of past possibilities, of roads not taken, of offering her home to an orphan, of revisiting a onetime romance — a socially condemned one, no less, that she doesn’t seem to fully acknowledge?
We learn through stories that Samuel and Ann tell each other (“remember when” kinds of exchanges) that they met during the Civil War, when Ann served in a hospital and Samuel was a recovering patient. They enjoyed each other’s company and although they barely touched, they connected enough to write each other afterwards — although Ann, we are told, never received Samuel’s letters. “One advantage of being thought eccentric is that you get away with irregularities,”Ann says of herself, and we spend the balance of the play attempting to determine which irregularities she really wants to express.
Gilbert’s Ann is restraint personified, expertly delivering the bulk of the play’s dialogue (she is the one character on stage throughout the 90-minute play), yet providing little animation. Smaltz’s Samuel, an ex-slave, history teacher and erstwhile romantic interest has a compelling stage presence yet explores too little. The production is subdued, underplayed, and without an underlying electricity that might be there in the writing but is not on stage in these performances.
If only there were two fewer characters. If only the story were more focused. If only a more inspired set (designer William Boles opts for the literal, not the evocative) supported rather than distracted from this spare story. If only the characters were allowed to do more than stand and sit and play with photographs during our 90 minutes with them.
As a play of words, If Only assumes that we will have a significant knowledge of late-19th-century US history. I don’t know that all of us do. This is also a story of restraint, of speaking within clear social barriers, of never overreaching one’s place, of romantic disappointments, of returning to one’s role. A heavy-handed metaphor involving Sophie disturbing Henry’s butterfly collection offers a bit of promise that some story elements might take flight — Sophie, we are told, wanted only to unpin the insects so they could fly. This play, and plot, needs similar unpinning.