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LOU'S VIEWS: Graven image conscious

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Lou Harry

This week, Spanish artists explore the sacred and the IRT’s playwright-in-residence presents a haunted Abe Lincoln.
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Forget for now the ongoing controversy over the Second Amendment. Consider, instead, the much older conflict over the Second Commandment—the one about not creating a graven image.

While Moses’ big tablets were fairly explicit, sacred images nonetheless have played a key role in the evolution of organized religion. In a largely illiterate society, paintings and sculptures—effective ways to focus devotion—mattered. And rules evolved that defined their treatment.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s “Sacred Spain” (through Jan. 3) focuses on such 17th-century religious art in often striking but also subtle ways. It’s an exhibition that offers rewards whether you view it emotionally, intellectually, historically, esthetically, religiously, or any combination of the above.

You can walk through the muted, color-coded galleries and choose your own approach. At times, I found myself playing an artistic version of I-Spy, noting, for instance, how crescent moons were used or how different artists treated cherubs. The expressions of angels, ranging from pained empathy to minor annoyance, provided other threads through the work.

Jesus, of course, plays a key role, but in less uniform ways than I had expected. He’s represented by a then-popular but now odd “Christ Child” wooden doll, painted as a tot with a mischievous look in the charming “Saint Joseph with the Christ Child,” presented happily gussied up in “Christ Child with Passion Symbols,” and offered as a headless image on a cloth (not the Shroud of Turin, FYI) in “Holy Face.”

Even in his suffering and death, there’s a wide range of tones and attitudes. Surrounded by darkness in “Christ after the Flagellation,” he’s movingly attempting to gather his garments. In “Via Dolorosa,” he’s got a pale glow that seems to anticipate a better afterlife. In “Dead Christ” (one of the few sculptures in the exhibition) and “Entombed Christ,” there’s a level of suffering that “Passion of the Christ” devotees will recognize.

Wall text in each room is, unfortunately, formed into potentially intimidating monolithic blocks. And the smaller text readings for each piece may challenge some.

Still, there’s much here to contemplate and engage with, regardless of your religious affiliation, prior exposure to sacred art, or previous interest in Spanish culture. It’s an even more remarkable show when you consider that it’s the first of its kind, with many of the works visiting the United States for the first time. And, unlike other major special exhibitions stopping here on tour, this one was organized, impressively, by the IMA. And it’s free.
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What is it with dare-you-to-attend titles this theater season?

First, the Phoenix Theatre offers a guy-reunion comedy with the misleading moniker “The Most Damaging Wound” and now the Indiana Repertory Theatre has to post the gloomy title “The Heavens are Hung in Black” on its marquee for a play about Abraham Lincoln that doesn’t even include the famed assassination. If “Oklahoma!” were written today, it might be called “Death in the Cornfields.”

Sure, in James Still’s play, there’s melancholy in the president’s office (re-created in an effective breakaway set that oddly parks a U.S. map behind a pillar). The death of one of his sons hangs heavy as Lincoln wrestles with the question of whether to emancipate American slaves and what impact that will have on his effort to reunite the country.

Originally commissioned to premiere at the reopening of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., “Heavens” isn’t terribly concerned with military maneuvers. There’s talk about the frustration of the ineffective use of the North’s forces, but not much about specific strategies. Instead, the play takes on the air of “A Christmas Carol,” with Lincoln visited by instructive spirits, including John Brown, Dred Scott and the fictional Uncle Tom. So spirited is his workplace that a realist in the audience might easily come to believe Lincoln’s psychological problems far outweigh those of wife Mary Todd. Walt Whitman makes an occasional appearance as well and, unlike the other visitors, his words provide perspective and poetic weight to the decisions being made by the all-too-human Abe.

Played for humanity rather than historical stature, Nicholas Hormann’s Lincoln comes across less like famed portrayals by Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey and more like, well, forgive me, but I kept hearing Dana Carvey. He’s truest in moments with his earthbound wife (Mary Beth Fisher) and a troubled mother (Diane Kondrat) and seems to have a genuine affection for his children. But the playwright focuses so heavily on the personal that he seems a weak, distracted, unintentionally self-indulgent commander-in-chief. Surely Still’s intention wasn’t for us to want to slap some sense into the president before half an act was over.

Across the board, the IRT has assembled a fine supporting cast. Ryan Artzberger has a memorable gaze as Walt Whitman. Adam Crow made me want to learn more about U.S. Marshall Ward Hill Lamon. Jason Bradley gives a charming seen-everything sensitivity to Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay. And the children in the cast handle their chores well.

The most effective moment in “The Heavens are Hung in Black” comes not from the heavy-handed coda, the obligatory slow-motion battlefield moments, or Lincoln’s ultimate world-changing decision. Instead, it occurs as a small moment near the top of the second act, as Lincoln makes a surprise visit to an acting troupe’s rehearsal.

As the enthusiastic crew greets the president, an African-American worker (David Alan Anderson) squelches his enthusiasm and withdraws his hand before finding out if Lincoln would, in fact, shake it.

It’s a human moment more haunting than any appearances by gimmicky ghosts. •

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Visit ibj.com/arts for additional reviews, previews and arts discussion. Twitter: IBJarts

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