Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
I came to this production quite late in the run, so my critical response is really limited to joining in on the chorus of approval already offered by other reviewers. Still, I've always felt that the best reviews are really just a kind of reporting on one person's experience in the theatre at any given performance. On those terms my response to a Saturday matinee two weeks after opening is really no different than it would have been on opening night.
Sheila Daniels' production of “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” impressed and enthralled me, leaving me surprisingly moved and deeply gratified by the integrity and expertise of the performances. Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize winning script is rarely produced; I suspect partly because it is a large cast and requires a substantial budget, but perhaps more because it requires a lead actor with qualities not easily found, and a director capable of unloading from the character the myth and deification that attend most histories of this most intriguing, probably greatest President.
Erik Lochtefeld begins his portrayal of Lincoln as a lanky, crude, least-likely-to-succeed young man saddled with debt and trying to work his way through a crude education. The play takes us from that direction-less adolescent whose highest ambition is to become postmaster in charge of one or two letters a month to the grief-tempered, politically astute man elected, almost against his will and certainly against his best instincts, to the highest office in the land. In order for that journey to be believable, we must also believe each and every one of the relationships in the play, each of the people whose experience adds another layer to the man's character. Lochtefeld never has a false move.
In his profound love for Ann Rutledge (the lovely and convincing Angela DiMarco), or his complex marriage to Mary Todd (a deeply impressive Mary Jane Gibson), whether in his relationships with locals or political outsiders, family or friends, commoner or power-broker, Lochtefeld grew in each encounter. That growth becomes stature, that character becomes greatness. It is a quality quite separate from ambition, and one very difficult to act. In his relationship with his best friend, Joshua Speed, we see two men leading parallel lives, and while both are equally admirable only one will come to greatness. Hans Alwies is excellent as Speed, but we cannot help but compare these two men, moving through life side by side, up to the point where one of them must answer to a higher calling. It does not diminish Joshua Speed; it only provides another measure for Lincoln.
Sheila Daniels brings that same quality of character to this entire production. There is nothing false or manipulative about the play. We believe that, as in all the best historical fiction, if this is not the way it actually was then it is certainly the way it might have been. The physical production is beautiful, with an authentic, entertaining musical underscore by Gretta Harley, simple but elegant scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and beautiful costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess. The three-hour playing time feels exactly right, three one-hour acts that feel perfectly integrated and necessary.
By the conclusion of the play, following a Lincoln-Douglas debate in which the estimable R. Hamilton Wright creates a Douglas of strength and honorable difference, Lincoln makes one final address to the people of his community before leaving for Washington. By that time we have seen the man in all his uncertainty and sorrow, a man who understands the terrible cost of trying to take what a person believes is the only right course, one who measures his compromise against his intention and has the courage to take the next step forward, trusting only that his conscience will guide him.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about this entire production is that after his final speech, in the silence, standing on the podium, back turned to the audience, the man Lincoln somehow grew in front of our eyes. Nothing he could have said at that point could have been as eloquent or convincing as the simple, earned fact of the man at the center of the stage. That is the only real measure of greatness for any leader or any actor.