Role Playing: Lawrence Grimm found Lincoln first in pages of history, then within himself
Interview: The tall actor says he needed to sharpen his wits to keep up with icon of “Heavens Are Hung in Black’ at Shattered Globe.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence Grimm stands 6 feet 4 inches tall – the same height as Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t height that worried Grimm when he took on his nuanced and profoundly human portrayal of Lincoln in James Still’s “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” at Shattered Globe Theatre. What concerned the actor were the iconic dimensions of the 16th president, the towering figure whose wisdom would guide the nation through its greatest crisis.
“Those were big shoes to fill,” says Grimm, “and of course Lincoln’s life has been documented in so many books filled with very strong opinions about who he was and what he did. But when I stopped worrying about what I hadn’t read and simply began doing what actors do – when I began memorizing the part and creating my own persona – that feeling of being absolutely overwhelmed went away.”
Still’s highly concentrated play is set in an early phase of the Civil War when the Union’s campaign seemed to be mired in indecision and miscalculation. Lincoln mulls the idea of revoking slavery, but emancipation is not at the top of his mind. First and foremost is the preservation of the Union. Yet even as his burdens weigh upon him, he finds solace in his young son Tad and comforts his wife Mary in her grief over the fatal illness of another son, Willie. War and circumstance will not wait, however: Almost breath by breath, Lincoln turns from affairs of state to family to a sleepless longing for the contentment and friendships of life back home in Illinois.
“There was a compassion in Lincoln that was not a stretch for me,” says Grimm. “He was a man of kindness, openness, curiosity and intuitive intelligence. For me, the key challenge – the stumbling block, really – was how fast this man’s brain worked. In portraits, he sometimes looks a bit sloppy and awkward in body and dress. But his mind was incredibly agile.
“In the second act, there’s what I call the spinning-plate scene where Lincoln is trying to entertain Tad while dealing with officials in his office complaining that General McClellan isn’t really leading the army, and so on. All this seemed like Lincoln can’t focus, and I didn’t know what to do. So I wrote to the playwright for advice.
“Still wrote back saying that Lincoln suffered from melancholy – what we would called clinical depression today – but not ADD (attention deficit disorder). The problem was that Larry the actor wasn’t keeping up with all these synapses. Lincoln could burst into tears without shame, and within seconds snap to a judgment about a document that required a decision. He could simply connect more dots more quickly than most people.”
Grimm found the humanity of the historic Lincoln in small things, like the slightly drawled speech of this Kentucky native who spent part of his youth in southern Indiana before the family moved on to Illinois. And Lincoln was fond of story-telling. Still’s play is peppered with spontaneous anecdotes.
“I love the narratives he could spin,” the actor says. “And none of the stories happen by accident. There’s always an objective, a point that he’s making. I call them his little Garrison Keillor moments.”
If the Lincoln of Still’s play shows a quick mind, he also betrays one reeling under the stress of outsized events. Lincoln has trouble sleeping, and his insomnia leads him down pathways that cross borders of place and time.
“In Lincoln’s apparitions, James (Still) has given us a really great convention,” says Grimm. “When you’re sleep deprived, it’s worse than being drunk, and so Lincoln’s fantasies all make perfect sense. People come into and out of his head based on his impulses. But we didn’t want a ‘Christmas Carol’-like Scrooge. These aren’t separate events, but interconnected things going on in his mind.
“When in one dream-state he meets (Confederate President) Jefferson Davis, Lincoln talks about how deeply he feels the loss of life in war. Davis doesn’t feel that at all. He believes the sacred cause transcends the toll of human life. If you’re a leader, it’s a liability to feel as much as Lincoln feels. He is Hamlet-like, and there’s a decisiveness in Davis that Lincoln envies.”
Lincoln looked for respite from the war even in fleeting moments, Grimm says. “He enjoyed his children. He was a hands-on dad when that wasn’t typical. There’s a scene where Lincoln is laughing with Tad when (Secretary of War) Stanton is being quite serious and reprimands Lincoln for his frivolity. Lincoln replies, ‘I laugh because otherwise I would weep.’ It’s his survival mechanism for getting from one day to the next.”
Just as Lincoln has his stress-induced visions, so does his wife Mary Todd (Linda Reiter), who is sometimes his confidante and counsellor, other times his supplicant. Anguished by the loss of their son Willie, Mary imagines that she sees the boy in his childish vigor. She feels isolated and clamors to see her husband.
“At one point, Lincoln says, ‘Tell her that I’m waging a war,’” notes Grimm. “But her own pain trumps even that. He feels such great empathy that she’s seeing Willie. We sometimes underestimate the human capacity for dealing with trauma and stress, to negotiate, navigate and stay sane. Lincoln gets painted in mythological proportions, but the character within him was profoundly human.”
Mary Todd likewise lived – indeed, still lives – in dual images, Grimm says: “One may think of her as fragile, but Linda brings out the strength in her – the woman who’s governing the governor. Mary Todd displays a level of insight that is heightened by Linda’s performance, which is wise and intelligent.”
In forging his closely inflected image of Lincoln at the center of calamity, Grimm was abetted by a director who brought more than theatrical savvy to the enterprise: Louis Contey is a lifelong Lincoln enthusiast who, as Grimm puts it, “has his own Lincoln library. When I asked him to suggest some books I might read, he sent me a two-page annotated list as a place to start. So there I was trying to play one of the greatest men in American history under the eye of an expert on the subject.
“But Lou was terrific. His appreciation, understanding and admiration for Lincoln is deeply personal. Yet he was completely flexible and open to every idea I had. He would just say, ‘This is what’s going on. Imagine what it would be like.’ Permission is sometimes the greatest gift you can get from a director. Lou built my confidence. He could not have known how intimidated I was.”
- Review of ‘The Heavens Are Hung in Black’: Read it at Chicago On the Aisle
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