Abe Lincoln in Stockbridge

Revival of 1938 Pulitzer Prize Winner

By: - Jun 16, 2024

Abe Lincoln in Illinois
By Robert E. Sherwood
Directed by David Auburn
Scenic design, Bill Clarke; Lighting, Seth Reiser; Costumes, Amanda Roberge, Sound/Music, Scott Killian
Cast: David Adkins, Rebecca Brooksher, Evan Dibbs, Shawn Fagan, Lynette R, Freeman, Corinna May, Robert G. McKay, Kelli Simpkins, Julian Tushabe, Isadora Wolfe, Hanna Koczela (understudy)
Unicorn Theatre
Berkshire Theatre Group
Stockbridge, Mass.
June 13-July 14

In 1938 the three act play Abe Lincoln in Illinois, by Robert E. Sherwood won the Pulitzer Prize. It made a star of Raymond Massey on Broadway as well as in the subsequent film.

It’s a coming of age story of a back-woodsman, born in a log cabin, who rose from a humble origin to be the iconic and martyred 16th President of the United States. Research has changed our view of him but Sherwood’s play is a folksy coming of age tale in three acts. It was the beginning of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, now the party of Trump whose ominous shadow falls on a different era and a politician with backbone and moral integrity.

In producing a play that is two years older than I am director, David Auburn, has been faithful to the text but made changes, the de rigeur legerdemain that contemporizes the production. There has been gender and race switching with mixed results. Those role changes range from muddled and gratuitous to truly brilliant and inspired. It’s a long evening in three acts that lags as well as has its brilliant and inspired moments.

While the dialogue rings true what meets the eye in the three who portray Lincoln, in each act, are other than expected. Brandon Dial (Act One) and Robert G. McKay (Act Three), are Black; the other, Kelli Simpkins (Act Two), self-identifies as gender fluid.

There is rustic cacophony exemplifying the frontier life set in a saloon in act one. There is guitar and banjo with music in a rural manner that punctuates the drama throughout the evening. The young Abe is a gawky kid, (adequately performed by Brandon Dial) tutored but largely self-educated who practices law. His clients are poor and can hardly pay his modest fees. If he runs for office, however, he will earn the handsome salary of $3 a day. It’s barely enough to pay off his debts.

Perhaps it will be enough eventually to marry the lovely Ann Rutledge (Isadora Wolfe). Her untimely death sends him into a tailspin. The point is made how different his life would have been had he married his true love rather that the ambitious, tyrannical and eventually unhinged Mary Todd (Rebecca Brooksher). She is a woman of property and breeding but more of a burden than comfort during the trials and tribulations of the later Civil War.

There is a cast of eleven doubled up and often transgendered to convey three times as many characters. It’s a challenge for the cast and requires the audience to run a mental score card. Overall, the players are excellent including BTF regulars like David Adkins, who is always excellent, as well a Corinna May. Let the record note that Adkins has multiple personalities but remains male.

While the longer first act has a lot of bing, bang, boom the action settles in the more fluid and comprehensible second act and resolves into the potent and compelling concluding act.  

During his middle passage it was challenging to buy into the Lincoln of Simpkins. She had a limited range of emotion. There was an instinctive gesture of hugging herself. It was so persistent that we fault the director, David Auburn or movement director Isadora Wolfe, for not breaking her of that annoying habit. The middle Lincoln she conveys is a rather lost soul who having broken off engagement to Todd is literally wandering in the wilderness.

He spends time with an Oregon bound couple with a gravely sick child. Abe, more or less an atheist, is encouraged to pray for the child. There is a black slave and his liberating former master in this clutch of pioneers. The question is raised whether Oregon will be a free or slave territory.

With many permutations the issue of slavery insinuates itself with ever greater focus and intensity into the narrative. Lincoln expresses his views privately then on the stump.

At the beginning of the third act Simpkins slipping into another role, literally passes the hat, the signifying stove pipe, to Robert G. McKay. Here the production reaches full intensity with a magnificent performance by McKay.

There is an excerpt of the famous Senate debates with Stephen Douglas (Corinna May). At heart is the Dred Scott decision that found him to be the “property” of his master and thus to be returned. Douglas, a man of lesser stature than the towering Lincoln, was known to be his equal as a public speaker. May makes his case for preserving slavery but with less authority than one would hope for.

Dred Scott was an enslaved African American man who, along with his wife, Harriet, unsuccessfully sued for the freedom of themselves and their two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the "Dred Scott decision."

There is irony in considering an inhumane decision by the Court that finds relevance with the audience in light of the current fiasco. McKay, in the finest performance of a new season, delivers his argument and other speeches. There are further Lincolnesque aftershocks as those words are delivered with such power and nuance by a superb African American actor.

The third act has interesting sidebars. There is cynical meeting with party leaders seducing him into becoming a candidate. It reveals how even the best of them sell their souls in politics. The nominators do not particularly like Lincoln but view him as a vote getter who can be controlled.

The election night is well played as results filter in. Mary Todd is over the top until Lincoln orders “give us the room.” There is a heated confrontation that serves as a thumbnail of his marital ordeal.

As President elect he and Mary leave by train for Washington, D.C. It’s an ominous moment when he delivers a compelling speech to friends and constituents. The powerful and compelling third act brought it all back home.