In the theater, anything can happen. At least that’s what Dr. Charles Augustus Leale claims in the opening minutes of Lincoln — An American Story, and frankly, it’s hard to fault his argument.
After all, he holds a unique place in the American narrative. As the closest surgeon on hand during Ford’s Theatre’s infamously truncated production of Our American Cousin, he suddenly found himself responsible for the mortally wounded former President Abraham Lincoln in what became one of the most notable — and theatrical — assassinations in history.
Mostly overlooked until now, Leale is the focus of Hershey Felder’s one-man musical production, which dives into the past to provide a valid and surprisingly new perspective on one of the longest, darkest nights America has ever known.
The venue advances the story even before the play begins. The Pasadena Playhouse mimics Ford’s Theatre, and it’s to that very venue that Leale, in his Union garb with nothing onstage but a musket and a rocking chair, welcomes the audience. He delves into a brief retelling of his life story, a tale of a simple, good-hearted man that, were it not for this production, most of the audience would likely never have given a second thought to.
That’s because history, as taught in any classroom, is a story, and Lincoln’s death is one of the most widely explored chapters. Though someone obviously cared for the commander-in-chief on his deathbed, most accounts ignore who that person was. Lincoln addresses the caretaker’s identity in depth, fleshing out one of the “extras” of American history.
The subject matter evokes a great deal of passion from Felder, who, as playwright, composer and actor, pulls triple-duty for a story he feels needs to be told, or rather told from a different angle. This is Felder’s opportunity to show the effects of Lincoln’s death on the life of an ordinary man who, despite being caught up in the wheels of great events, was no different from anyone else in the Union. Lincoln was a titan to Leale just like everyone else; the surgeon is distinct only because he spent the longest night of his life cradling that titan’s bloody head in his hands.
Though that night certainly takes up the bulk of Leale’s life, some of his earlier anecdotes manage to be interesting because the events related won’t be as familiar to most viewers.
Most fascinating is an account of another theatrical performance Leale witnessed, a version of Julius Caesar starring the three Booth brothers — all legends of the stage and practically household names even before the youngest brother cemented his family’s legacy.
Indeed, seeing Hershey portray Leale’s take on John Wilkes Booth’s performance as Marc Antony — likely made far more sinister here than when originally acted, what with the gift of hindsight — one can’t help but realize that the man onstage is giving the very definition of a layered performance. For a one-man show, it’s best to go all out.
That’s not to say Felder is completely alone onstage. The background symphony removes any sense of isolation and imbues the performance with a grandiosity that, when paired with Felder’s gravitas, gives this lone performer a sense of mythos.
His songs, although brief, are lyrically adept and manage to work their way naturally into the production, something that might not be expected when you hear the words “one-man musical on Lincoln’s assassination.”
The projected effects lend the whole show a sort of big-budget flair and bring to this mock Ford’s Theatre the pillars of a Roman coliseum, the bustle of a 19th-century Washington, D.C. and, most breathtakingly, a starry night in which Leale relates the deeply emotional memory of a young soldier who died under his care.
This soldier’s name was lost to history, as were nearly all the identities of those who perished in America’s bloodiest chapter. That Leale was there to witness one of history’s most famous deaths is a coincidence; it could have been anyone in his place.
It’s a small bit of luck, then, that the duty fell to someone who Felder portrays as being just as greatly affected by the death of a soldier — quiet and uncelebrated — as he was by the demise of one of the greatest men ever to live.