Regional Reviews: San Diego
An American Story
Mr. Felder has written a piece that is operatic in character, one that has plenty of capacity to hold audiences in its thrall.
Dr. Charles Augustus Leale was a young Army surgeon stationed at Washington's military hospital. He was relatively new to the practice of medicine, but he had in a short time seen plenty of men who had suffered gunshot wounds. He was first to arrive at the presidential box after John Wilkes Booth had fired a shot that had lodged in Mr. Lincoln's brain. Dr. Leale quickly recognized that he had little to no chance of saving the president's life, but Mary Todd Lincoln immediately trusted him and ordered that he be placed in charge of the President's care. It was Leale who supervised moving the President across the street from the theatre, and he asserted the authority given to him by Mrs. Lincoln when the President's advisers and other physicians gathered by the his bedside. Leale stayed by the President, keeping him as comfortable as possible, until he died.
It was thought that Leale provided only one account of the incident, in 1909, but recently Lincoln scholar Helena Iles Papaioannou discovered a second account in the National Archives, written just after Lincoln's death. Ms. Papaioannou and Lincoln Project director Daniel Stowell were present at the performance I attended and provided fascinating commentary following the performance. If you'd like to read Leale's report, it is online.
Mr. Felder capitalizes on the fact that Leale lived to a fine old age and sets his piece in New York in 1932, where the 90-year-old doctor decides to tell his story once again, perhaps to distract himself from the dark days of the Depression ("Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?" opens and closes the show). It takes a little while for the narrative to get going, but once it does the good doctor sweeps us back to Civil War days, his baptism-by-fire as an Army surgeon, and his admiration for Lincoln and the goal of preserving the union. Like the designers of the Lincoln Memorial, Mr. Felder understands that Lincoln's power rests in his words, and the narrative includes a number of quotations from Lincoln, including his entire Gettysburg Address.
The performance is underscored by a ten-piece orchestra (while Healy Henderson serves as concertmaster, no music director is credited, but I suspect that Mr. Felder, who wrote the book and composed or assembled the music, prepared the musicians as well). Ironically, the composer whose work the play most prominently features is Stephen Foster, and Mr. Felder pulls no punches in performing Mr. Foster's paeans to Southern life with the original lyrics, some of which are now considered to be racist. These songs are sentimental ones, almost arias, and the music serves to provide the narrative with an emotional weight that perhaps it does not always deserve.
Nor is Mr. Felder a singer whose tambour even borders on operatic quality that these songs seem to demand, but no matter. Even if the weight of the material proves to be, as in opera, melodramatic at points, I'd venture that the performance would fall flat without the musical accompaniment.
Aside from the orchestra, which is onstage behind Mr. Felder, sometimes in sight, sometimes hidden by curtains that seamlessly rise and fall (David Buess and Trevor Hay did the scenic design, complemented by Christopher Rynne's lighting), the production is a simple one, with projections (by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder) on curtains and a chair front and center. I should, however, single out Erik Carstensen's sound design, as it adapted to the Birch North Park Theatre's quirky acoustics better than any I've experienced there.
As directed by Mr. Hay, the show chugs along once it gets going, gaining emotional weight as the action shifts to the Ford's Theatre performance of Our American Cousin. Mr. Felder makes it easy to be caught up in the narrative, a wave that ultimately crests and then gently pushes its hearers onto the shore.
There is a wave of popular interest in Abraham Lincoln right now, and Mr. Felder seems primed to ride that wave as well. After the San Diego production closes, performances are scheduled for the Royal George Theatre in Chicago and the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston.
An American Story, performances Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 pm, Saturdays, 2 pm; 8 pm, and Sundays, 3 pm, January 4 February 3, at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, in San Diego. Tickets ($58) may be purchased by calling 619.239.8836 or by visiting www.birchnorthparktheatre.net .
Mme. Samantha F. Voxakis and Messrs. Erik Carstensen and Robert S. Birmingham present An American Story, Hershey Felder, book, music, and performer. Directed by Trevor Hay (original direction by Joel Zwick), with scenic design by David Buess and Mr. Hay, lighting design by Christopher Rynne, sound design by Mr. Carstensen, projection design by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder, costume design by Abigail Caywood, and Healy Henderson, concertmaster.