If Only: They Discovered Some Bigger Hills and Valleys
“What are you trying to do?”, asks the gentile and lovely Melissa Gilbert, best known to us all when she portrayed the feisty Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie” from 1974 to 1983. She poses that question to a gentleman, played by Mark Kenneth Smaltz, that she has invited over to her Manhattan apartment for an early evening visit. It’s all quite proper for this time period in New York, or at least that is how it appears initially. But that question is the very question that I would like to pose to Christopher McElroen who directed Thomas Klingenstein’s If Only. He has crafted a sweet and caring little play that is perfectly suited to the intimate space that is the Cherry Lane Theatre. It’s gentle and calm like an easy buggy ride through the country, lovingly designed by William Boles, with costumes by Kimberly Manning, lighting by Becca Jeffords, and sound design by Andy Evan Cohen. The 85 minute play delivers a lovely sense of care and polite restraint, but one starts to hope for a few more indulations in tone and emotionality as we move through their engaging conversation. The road, we wish for needs some bumps along the way, to keep us alive and engaged. Too smooth and too flat of a road might slowly lull us into a nice sweet nap.
The play explores an unspoken love relationship that silently developed between these two characters years and years ago, and the racial in-equality that existed around them. They were brought together in the chaos of a soldier’s hospital during the Civil War by none other than Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, who plays a pivotal role literally, through books and diaries, had befriended the well-educated ex-slave (Smaltz), and also the young, spirited woman from New York’s social class (Gilbert). A love was born on that park bench as she read to the soldier on the mend, a love that neither dared to acknowledge. Thirty-six years later they meet, and unbeknownst to her husband, played solidly by Richmond Hoxie, Gilbert’s brave character invites him over to reconnect. Why this time is she braver now than the other opportunities before? It becomes clear that she is in some emotional need, as she is filling her loneliness with a silent orphan girl, played sweetly by Korinne Tetlow. But beyond that, we aren’t entirely sure, but it is clear that these two friends of Lincoln have a strong bond, and a huge well of romantic feelings that are aching to be spoken aloud. They talk, for what seems like hours, twisting and pivoting around polite conversation until the former slave finally asks, “Why did you invite me here tonight?” We all breath in the air of anticipation, hoping a shift is on its way but that doesn’t necessarily come quickly or powerfully enough.
Gilbert is wonderful in her girlish and proper demeanor, trembling with some inner unsaid emotional space. There is a sweetness and a longing that is hard to ignore, but the engagement is tenuous. Smaltz’s voice rings strong and true with a deepness and a spirit that draws us in, but the two characters just keep talking and talking. Although it is always charming and quite sweet, the play’s intent remains far down the road and tends to never appear to get any closer. The writing and direction have created a pretty road that is far too straight and flat. Motivations and impulses, even when it is about avoidance, never fluctuate up and down, nor feel distinct from one another. What’s needed in the end are more peaks and valleys for us to stay intrigued. Politeness and avoidance will only carry us for so long. The love and desire kind of just hangs there limp and a bit sad, and it is a struggle to stay awake at the wheel.