Erik Lochtefeld and R. Hamilton Wright
in Abe Lincoln in Illinois
(© Chris Bennion)
Erik Lochtefeld and R. Hamilton Wright
in Abe Lincoln in Illinois
(© Chris Bennion)
The Intiman Theatre's second "American Cycle" of plays gets off to a middling start with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Robert Sherwood's 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the early life and times of our most-mythologized president. Director Sheila Daniels shows a steady and confident hand at the helm, but her three-hour production lumbers along with all the elegance of a fully-loaded river barge. The large ensemble cast, good as it is, struggles under the weight of Sherwood's earnest, pedagogical script.

Forget about the bearded Lincoln on the five-dollar bill: Young Abe (Erik Lochtefeld) cuts an almost Gomer Pyle-like figure amongst the citizens of New Salem, Illinois. With his hillbilly getup and amiable manner, he's the village jester, postmaster and peacekeeper all rolled into one. (That is, when he's not burning the midnight oil with the local schoolmaster.)

But there's a very dark side to Lincoln, and Lochtefeld gives a complex portrait of a man deeply divided against himself. Reluctant to stretch beyond the safe confines of village life, prone to fits of paralyzing melancholy, his Lincoln lurches unwillingly toward the White House. Yet, rich as it is, Lochtefeld's portrayal gives very little hint of the visionary leader that Lincoln is to become.

The supporting characters fare less well. Whether prairie ruffian or political wheeler-dealer, most characters have only one task: Describe Abe's character for the historical record. Notable exceptions are Ann Rutledge, Lincoln's early love (well-played by Angela DiMarco), and Judge Stephen Douglas (the crackerjack R. Hamilton Wright). Their scenes crackle with real energy, and the Lincoln-Douglas debate over slavery -- and the future of the country -- is especially riveting.

Otherwise, Daniels would have done well to trim the script, which tends to repeat itself. Moreover, the playwright's dogged approach doesn't exactly make for glittering dialogue. (Consider Mary Todd's line upon her eventual re-engagement to Lincoln: "I'll take humiliation, if it brings me ultimate triumph!") And having the actors sing period songs and toss chairs to each other during choreographed scene changes doesn't help. Composer/sound designer Gretta Harley's musical offerings are varied, entertaining and no doubt historically accurate, but it's a distracting device.

Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' minimalist set design, however, is lovely. Rough-hewn barn slats, placed against the backdrop of a wide-open prairie, suggest both humble beginnings and limitless choices for a young man and a young nation.

Ultimately, though, Abe Lincoln in Illinois is an overly long, laborious history lesson that hasn't aged well.