For The Love Of Lincoln
He’s on the penny and the five-dollar bill, and he’s as famous for his top hat and beard as for his stance against slavery. Since he became our 16th president in 1861, Abraham Lincoln has stirred the public’s historical consciousness. He continues to do so today, perhaps more than ever before. View myriad hip incarnations of Lincoln splashed across trendy T-shirts online, and there’s the compelling Lincoln film that came out recently – the Spielberg one, if not Vampire Hunter, ahem.
Bringing a unique angle to Honest Abe’s lore is Heritage at Hawaii Pacific University’s Paul and Vi Loo Theatre. Telling the tall man’s story (he was 6-foot-4, but legend and the Lincoln Memorial cast an excessively taller shadow) are the five ladies closest to Lincoln. Their humble stories demystify the historical figure, presenting a more intimate portrait of Lincoln the awkward but diligent boy, the lover, the budding politician. Lincoln appears, not as a character, but as a disembodied presence, fleshed out through second- and third-person storytelling, song, dance and large-screen photo projections.
Without ado, meet grandma Lucy Hanks (Hailey Farah).
“Lucy is a proud person with a lot of ambition,” says Farah, of her absorbing, quirky character, “but instead of thinking through every situation, she goes through it with her feelings.”
Those unfettered feelings lead the spunky, free-spirited girl into questionable amorous liaisons.
One of Lucy’s children, Nancy Hanks (Beth E. Barry) – Lincoln’s mom – is a long-suffering pioneer woman.
“Nancy’s greatest contribution to Lincoln was a kind of spiritual consciousness and a sense of morality,” notes Barry, whose proverbial voice-like-a-nightingale is not to be missed. “Before Nancy dies, she’s adamant about wanting her children to ‘Do as I taught you, be as I taught you.'”
The tragic character labors in the unforgiving frontier for her family, but expires from the “milk sick” (tainted milk products) while Abe is but a boy.
Enter Lincoln’s stepmom, Sarah Bush Johnston (yours truly), who has a hearty constitution and maintains a firm, nurturing presence on the impressionable young man. She takes heed of her stepson’s marked intellectual aptitude, encouraging his budding legal and political pursuits.
Another of his pursuits is his first love, Ann Rutledge (Rachelle Gesselman).
“Ann is a sweet, young girl who is enchanting, very dreamy and nostalgic about life,” points out Gesselman, who plays her character with innocence and longing. “She’s eager about Abraham. She wants to make him happy.”
But the budding romance is nipped by Ann’s early demise. On the tail of her petticoat comes the dominating and historically maligned Mary Todd (Melinda Maltby).
“She was misunderstood,” says Maltby. “From what I’ve gathered, she was charismatic, very learned, lively … and controlling.”
Her steely will pushes husband Abe into influential social circles. She prods him into political greatness.
“There is sadness in her life,” adds Maltby. “Three of her four sons die, then Lincoln gets killed. It’s hard when I’m doing that last speech about going to the theatre – thinking about how horrible that is.”
The thread connecting the five ladies is delivered in the gravely voice of our trusty narrator Jim Tharp, who lends import and nuance to the 100-year run of history. Three men – Joel McClure, S. Rick Crump and Samuel Filbeck – take the stage as the five
ladies’ husbands, lovers, acquaintances and various colorful characters, from a complacent slave master to a rabble-rouser, Civil War soldiers and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The leading ladies all play additional characters as well. Meanwhile, custom-created period costumes by Peggy Krock give the show an authentic flourish.
Heritage was the first play director Joyce Maltby produced at HPU, marking a full-circle return.
“When I did Heritage 21 years ago,” says Maltby, “I felt what a lovely story, and I learned things I never knew about Lincoln. I try to do new things, but this one certainly seemed like it should be repeated.”
the TICKET stub
When: April 4-27
Where: Paul and Vi Loo Theatre (45-045 Kamehameha Highway)
More Info: 375-1282, hpu.edu/theatre