This article originally appeared at First Things on September 11, 2017.
What if Abraham Lincoln had sent a young socialite to meet an injured soldier, without telling her that the soldier was black? What if an unspoken romance blossomed across the color line?
This is the premise of If Only…A Love Story, a new play by Thomas Klingenstein that is now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. It is a play about impasse. Imprisoned by social conventions and emotional perplexity, Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) believes in emancipation but can’t quite manage her own. Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) escaped from slavery but can’t inflict liberty on those too timid or too comfortable to take it.
We meet Ann and Samuel in 1901, many years after their time together in the Civil War army hospital. She is now sixty and in a childless marriage to a prosperous New York businessman. He has become a schoolteacher in Chicago. They meet at Ann’s invitation. Ann is decisively indecisive; she longs for something buried in her past, but she doesn’t know what. Samuel has built his adult life around disappointment and sees one last chance to redeem his hopes.
Klingenstein’s play leverages the audience’s hope that Samuel will somehow rescue Mrs. Astorcott from her respectable life. But this is 1901, and the dramatic resolution must be smaller and subtler. Smaltz gives Samuel a few glints of anger over his situation. But Samuel has lived a life with a carefully maintained broken heart, rather than a life of resentment against the system. He wants to change things, including the décor of Ann’s parlor, but he is no W.E.B. DuBois.
“Lincoln was our matchmaker,” Samuel says at one point, but like other matches Lincoln struck, this one was thwarted by the crosswinds of history. One of the most moving parts of Klingenstein’s play occurs when Ann relinquishes herself to her memory of a Union soldier from Maine as he lies close to death and asks her to carry a message back home to the girl to whom he had failed to confess his love—another impasse, one permanently sealed by death. Is this Ann’s fate, too? Not exactly.
Ann and Samuel are linked by their love of Lincoln. They can quote to each other alternating lines of his speeches. The “If Only” of the title is partly the question what might have happened “if only” Lincoln had lived. That question, however, remains unspoken, as do other matters that are on the hearts but not the tongues of the characters. Ann has in her charge a child who, from psychological trauma, has gone mute. She embodies Ann’s own voicelessness and perhaps stands in for an America that, after Lincoln’s assassination, lost its most eloquent voice for unity and healing.
Laura Collins-Hughes, reviewing If Only in The New York Times, panned it as “inert,” “overloaded with back story” and “much rehashing of old memories.” These criticisms might be better applied to any identity-based campus protest these days. Klingenstein, who is a reader of Edith Wharton, got the time, the place, and the culture of 1901 America exactly right. Ann is alienated from herself by a kind of “white privilege” that is no privilege at all, and Samuel is too busy inventing himself as a free man to dwell on old memories.
Though the play is set more than a century ago, it plainly seeks to say something about the here-and-now. Much of what If Only says is that we need to re-learn our Lincoln, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Racial antagonism is all malice, no charity, and its costs include the impasse that separates even the innocent from their better selves.