Melissa Gilbert stars in If Only, directed by Christopher McElroen, at Cherry Lane Theatre.
Melissa Gilbert stars in If Only..., directed by Christopher McElroen, at Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

It's an idea filled to the brim with drama: Two former lovers reunite three decades after they had a romance that couldn't last. This topic becomes especially fraught when you introduce the reason why: He is a former slave, and she is a white debutante from New York high society. But there are very few fireworks to speak of in Thomas Klingenstein's new work If Only... at Cherry Lane Theatre. With a cast led by Melissa Gilbert, the play fails to conjure up the exacting realism the piece requires.

The year is 1901; the setting is the stately home of Ann (Gilbert) and Henry Astorcott (Richmond Hoxie), a moneyed New York couple who married out of convenience some years earlier. In 1860, though, Ann was introduced to Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), a runaway slave turned soldier. What ensued was a meaningful relationship between the two, but one that obviously could never have had a future. Now, Ann has invited Samuel, a history professor, to the mansion she shares with Henry for a conversation about what might have been.

Melissa Gilbert sits with costar Mark Kenneth Smaltz.
Melissa Gilbert sits with costar Mark Kenneth Smaltz.
(© Carol Rosegg)

As Ann and Samuel reconnect and relive the old times they shared, they pay particular attention to one figure from history: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a friend of both. Ann knew him from the days before his presidency; Samuel was his part-time porter. When Ann went to Lincoln with a request during the Civil War, he asked her, in return, to visit Samuel, who was recovering from war wounds at a hospital. The turmoil later caused by Lincoln's assassination still weighs heavily upon them all these decades later.

What follows should be alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, a "what if" story for the older generation that's akin to work like A.R. Gurney's Love Letters. While some may find genuine emotion in If Only…, the static nature of the play, the stagnant performances, and Christopher McElroen's glacial staging get in the way of what could have been an enjoyable evening.

Melissa Gilbert and Richmond Hoxie share a scene.
Melissa Gilbert and Richmond Hoxie share a scene.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Gilbert, who was so believable as an 1870s farmgirl on TV's Little House on the Prairie, is surprisingly unconvincing as a more upper-class figure who lived through that same time period. While Klingenstein's script is stilted throughout, the dialogue sounds even less natural when she speaks it, with an archly girlish style that betrays the character's frequent claims that she's a "shriveled and dry" old lady.

But Gilbert doesn't really have an arc to play, and neither does Smaltz, who fares moderately better with his performance, which has more of a driving force behind it in the text (having him address the active question of "why did you ask me to come here?"). Hoxie disappears after his first scene, and six-year-old Korinne Tetlow completes the company in the needless, wordless role of a young orphan Ann has taken in to offset the fact that she never had children herself.

While it's already a challenge to develop romantic chemistry when the near-totality of the physical production consists of two characters seated across from each other, McElroen fails to create an atmosphere of tension and emotional movement to counter such difficulties. It also doesn't help that there's not much room to move around on William Boles's stately yet cramped drawing-room set. With the addition of Kimberly Manning's (period-appropriate) stuffy costumes that also maximize the physical space between the pair, and the piano rags playing on the old Victrola, If Only… seems more like a wax museum diorama than a living, breathing piece of theater.

Korinne Tetlow and Melissa Gilbert read a letter.
Korinne Tetlow and Melissa Gilbert read a letter.
(© Carol Rosegg)