Theater review by Raven Snook
Timing changes everything. Thomas Klingenstein couldn’t have foreseen that America’s recent focus on the legacy of the Civil War would imbue his loquacious period rom-dram with renewed poignancy. At once a paean to Abraham Lincoln and an examination of yesteryear’s gender and racial roles, If Only depicts an interracial conversation in 1901. Married New York City upper-cruster Ann (Little House on the Prairie's Melissa Gilbert) has tea with Samuel (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), a onetime runaway slave turned Union soldier she met decades earlier through then-President Lincoln. It’s been 36 years since the last time they spoke; after initial awkward pleasantries, they spend the evening rehashing the past, both personal and political.
Klingenstein’s staid, circuitous and symbol-heavy script is all tell and no show, so the production often feels static. Yet there are flashes of emotional action. Smaltz is magnetic as Samuel, who has become a history professor and gifted raconteur; he outshines Gilbert, whose hard work always shows. But even with its flaws, including a lens of white privilege, If Only tugs at the heartstrings, reminding us how far we’ve come—and how depressingly far we have to go.
Cherry Lane Theatre (Off Broadway). By Thomas Klingenstein. Directed by Christopher McElroen. With Melissa Gilbert, Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through Sept 16.