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Chicago by John Olson

An American Story
Royal George Theatre

Also see John's interview with Hershey Felder

Some people's lives are remarkable for what they've done. Others are remarkable for what they've seen. Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, the 23-year-old Army surgeon who was present when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln and then tended to the dying President for the last nine hours of his life, was both. Born in 1842, he saw Booth and his brothers perform on stage and crossed paths with songwriter Stephen Foster and poet Walt Whitman. He witnessed the expression of racial bigotry in America, saw the human carnage of the Civil War first hand, and lived to see the Great Depression. After the assassination and his military career, he devoted his life to providing medical services to children, much of the time for free. While Leale certainly performed under extraordinary circumstances when he was thrust into the role of surgeon to the President, it's his unique perspective as a witness to American history rather than his personal achievements that is the greater focus of Hershey Felder's new one-man play with music. In this sense, An American Story, which opened in Chicago on March 10th after a tryout run in San Diego last year, is a departure from Felder's previous stage biographies of some the giants of music.

Like his earlier pieces detailing the lives and work of Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven and Bernstein, this new piece written and composed by Felder is structured as a memoir narrated late in life by its subject. An American Story opens in 1932 and the 90-year-old Dr. Leale is listening to a recording of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" on a console radio. Before long, he's relating the story of the speech in 1909 when he first spoke publicly about his experience at Lincoln's deathbed. He starts the story by talking about his youth—and being introduced to the theater by his father, who took the young Charles to see Shakespeare. The boy's education also included a trip to Christy's Minstrels so the boy could witness the frighteningly offensive and, in the elder Leale's view, dishonest and inaccurate portrayal of black slaves as violent and dangerous. The love of Shakespeare continued to Leale's young adulthood, when he managed to secure a ticket to the one-night-only production of Julius Caesar in November 1864 featuring Edwin, Junius Brutus Jr. and John Wilkes Booth. The only time the three Booths performed together, the event was produced as a fundraiser for a statue of Shakespeare in New York's Central Park. Shakespeare's play concerning the assassination of Caesar was at least foreboding of John Wilkes Booth's assault if not even the inspiration for it.

These events are brought to life vividly through Felder's portrayal of such diverse characters as the minstrel performers, Edwin Booth and Dr. Leale at various stages of his life. The smart use of projections by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal add much to the storytelling as well. They're shown on a pleated scrim behind the simple set designed by director Trevor Hay, signifying Leale's 1932 New York apartment, and stunningly take us into locales like the old Winter Garden Theatre where Julius Caesar was performed. The projections vary from simple suggestions, like a window or a light, to dramatic full-screen photographs.

Felder has wisely chosen anecdotes that efficiently telegraph the tragic realities of American life in the Civil War years. After Leale's graduation from medical school, he enlists in the Army and is assigned to tend wounded soldiers at the Armory Square hospital in Washington DC. Leale's accounts of the mortally wounded soldiers are heartbreaking enough, but it's a story from one of those soldiers that Leale retells to the audience that encapsulates the tragedy of the war in just a few minutes. The soldier, a teenager assigned to an army band, tells of being encamped alongside the Rappahannock River in Virginia, with a rebel battalion and their band on the opposite shore. A "dueling band" performance begins, but the competition becomes quiet when the Union band plays "There's No Place Like Home" and the rebels across the river begin to sing along. This moment is accompanied by a gorgeous projection of the majestic and wide river, underscoring the beauty of this land scarred by battles.

Felder's depiction of the assassination and Lincoln's last hours are preceded by Felder's performance of excerpts from Our American Cousin, providing another occasion for the actor to assume distinctly different characters—in this case mimicking the broad performance styles of the time. The moment of assassination itself is chillingly recreated, with the Royal George Theatre—a venue two-thirds the size of Ford's Theatre and possessing boxes as does Ford's—decked out to resemble the site of Lincoln's shooting. Christopher Rynne's lighting design draws our attention to the President's box at house right and this environmental production (they also provide printed playbills in the long, vertical formats of the period as well as decorate the theater for a presidential visit) carries us into that horrific moment.

The story is accompanied by underscoring performed by a 10-piece orchestra seated behind the scrim. The score is mostly original, melodic and contemporary with a Copland-esque feel. As Felder's previous compositions have been mainly for the concert hall, this aspect of the multi-talented writer/actor/singer and concert pianist may be another revelation to audiences. The orchestrations, which Felder created as well, are particularly lush and include some lovely new settings of the Stephen Foster classics. Though the piece has no opportunity for Felder to play the piano, he sings Foster songs, minstrel numbers and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" with confidence, power and complete technical skill.

An American Story, coming as it does in the midst of Lincoln-mania, is a fine complement and supplement to other works—particularly to the recent Steven Spielberg film. The assassination is not shown in the film, but Felder's play recreates it and its immediate aftermath across the street at the Petersen House where Lincoln was taken after the shooting. What works best about An American Story, though, is the way it places the assassination and Lincoln's presidency in context. We feel the pain of the still–young United States in the middle of the 19th century—a pain that made the loss of the President even more severe. Thanks to Felder's choice of sharp, telegraphic anecdotes we feel the pain more than we see it, actually, and thus we feel it even more acutely. Felder's choice to frame the story with a 90-year-old Leale in the midst of the Great Depression but expressing confidence in the country's ability to rebound once again, gives the piece a hopeful ending that is resonant and encouraging for today.

An American Story is in an open-ended run at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago. Tickets are now on sale at Royal George Theatre at 312.988.9000 or online at www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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