This review of Garrett Heater's Lincoln's Blood at the Flamboyan Theater (in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center) was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written & Directed by Garrett Heater
Costumes by Debbie Ritchey (CNY Costumes)
Flamboyan Theater (at the Clemente)
107 Suffolk Street
New York, New York 10002
When a crime takes place, especially a murder, we too often forget the collateral damage that is done to friends and relatives of the victim. Lincoln's Blood, Garrett Heater's latest superbly written play, investigates those consequences and successfully depicts the effect the assassination had on those closest to Lincoln, those who were there by chance, and those who were involved in the conspiracy. All the actors in this play did a superb job but Ryan Santiago, who played Booth, was particularly outstanding in the role of John Wilkes Booth, actually making him into a sympathetic character. Of course, plays could be written about other people and families who were deeply affected by the assassination, such as that of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, but those stories will have to wait for another day.
Lincoln's Blood presents us with three particular characters having flashbacks as two are in mental asylums and one is just about to be hanged. Each has two primary characters in their memories - Major Henry Rathbone coupled with his fiancee Clara Harris, Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln paired with her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, and Mary Surratt joined with the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone, and Mary Surratt are all tragic characters. The scenes switch back and forth along parallel time lines. The history portrayed in the script is remarkably accurate except for the suggestion that Booth was romantically involved with Surratt and used her infatuation with him in order to get her to join his cause and aid in his conspiracy. All three highly engrossing memory plays take place in a remarkably staged set. The three scenes take place on different parts of the stage and the intimate setting of the scenes almost makes us feel as if we are part of the action.
The play opens with the self-centered Major Rathbone (played by Garrett Heater) insisting that his fiancee Clara Harris (played by Maya Dwyer) join him in a game of cards. The couple is clearly in love. Clara demurs to get ready to look her best in order to join her friend Mary Todd Lincoln and her husband at the theater. Rathbone tries to talk her out of going since they were not the first, second, or even third couple to be invited. He points out what termagant Mrs. Lincoln is. Clara still wants to go so she can support her girlfriend. When the Lincolns' carriage arrives, Rathbone, not really prepared, reluctantly joins the Lincoln entourage. The memory of this encounter is really Rathbone's attempt, in retrospect, to imagine what would have happened had Clara sat down for the card game and whether the President would still have been killed had they not joined him in the box that night.
Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln (portrayed by Kate Huddleston), who had several idees fixes, manages to keep them in check. However, she does have a temper, demonstrates that she has a very sharp tongue, and imagines that other women are trying to grab the limelight away from her. Going to Ford Theatre will be her opportunity to shine socially and outmaneuver people who she feels are her rivals. With peace having been achieved, Mary's paranoia is held in check for the moment and she is very happy. She confides in Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley (portrayed by Karin Franklin-King), her personal modiste, that she is a shopaholic who owes $27,000 to department stores in New York. To put things into perspective, Abraham Lincoln received a presidential salary of $25,000 (the equivalent of $750,000 in today's money when adjusted for inflation). She calculates she may be able to shake down some Republican Congressmen who she fancies owes her husband for political favors. Keckley manages to reassure Mary without being subservient to her.
Mary Surratt (acted by Karis Wiggins) develops a relationship with John Wilkes Booth in which she helps him carry out his dream of conspiracy against the Union and Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth, envious of his brothers, Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr,, wants to do something that will make him more famous and well-respected than either of his brothers or father. Hence, the assassination plot, which he feels will make him the avenging angel of the Confederacy and spark a second uprising that will overthrow the Union government. Ryan Santiago plays John so well that we like him despite his pomposity. We see him as a rational person, a patriot, plotting against the President. He then carries out his deed just as Act One comes to a close.
We next see Major Rathbone and Clara Harris with blood on their clothing due to the consequences of the assassination. Like an episode out of The Twilight Zone, Major Rathbone, while living in an asylum, has constant flashbacks where he tries to imagine how he might have acted or responded differently. Rathbone cannot shake the idee fixe that he could have done more to save the President or capture his assailant. He is unable to move on with his life despite the entreaties of Clara Harris and kills her several years later. Major Henry Rathbone is living in a closed loop in his own head. None of his scenarios have a happy ending, despite the supposed advantage of hindsight. A veteran of several Civil War battles, the Major is an unfortunate example of untreated PTSD.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln makes his wife Mary Todd Lincoln even more dysfunctional. At one point, her oldest son Robert puts her in a mental asylum in Batavia, Illinois by order of the Court. (Not in the play: Despite her mental problems, she becomes functional enough to get released from the asylum but never forgives her son for putting her in there in the first place. Many of her defenders argue her son put her into the mental asylum more to spare himself from the embarrassment of her behavior than to really help her mentally.) The flashbacks indicate she suffered a nearly complete meltdown. She is no longer able to keep her personality defects in check, but instead now allows her temper, tongue, and paranoia full reign. No one's loyalty is good enough for her including her long-suffering friend Elizabeth Keckley, who wrote a book to defend her and also raised money to help her. Keckley movingly relates a dream Abraham Lincoln shared with her - that of the death of a President in the White House. We really end up hating Mary Todd Lincoln far more than we could ever hate John Wilkes Booth.
Mary Surratt rots in her jail cell where she hopes she will not be hanged for her participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. In a flashback of memory, John Wilkes Booth comes to her as self-centered and concerned only about himself. He is shocked the South regards him as a villain. His deed is seen as that of a coward that will cause revenge against those who supported the Confederacy. Booth treats Mary and the audience to snippets of his finest moments on the stage as he mentally falls apart. He commits the equivalent of suicide by Federal soldier as opposed to being burned alive in a barn that has been set ablaze to smoke him out. We get to observe Booth's final delusional moments and Surratt's resignation when she realizes President Johnson has sealed her fate and that she will, in fact, become the first woman ever executed by the federal government.
The play successfully portrays the immense amount of collateral damage an assassination or murder can have on the survivors. Our nation, North and South, was traumatized by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln's Blood enables you to feel the dramatic and deeply emotional impact of that notorious act. It provides you with the opportunity to view this historical event through a different lens and perspective. From a broader philosophical viewpoint, one leaves the play with the understanding that life is short and can end or be tragically altered for anyone of us at any time. Knowing that to be true, I recall the following quotation of Abraham Lincoln, which we would all do well to keep in mind, "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."