The iconic president’s attending doctor is portrayed in a one-man show
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Theatre Critic
Even though Dr. Charles Augustus Leale was only 23 years old, Mary Todd Lincoln trusted the young surgeon, who was the first physician to reach dying president Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.
Hershey Felder’s world premiere play, “An American Story for actor and orchestra,” begins in 1932 during the Great Depression. Before launching into flashback, the then 90-year-old Leale (portrayed by Felder) explains that two things imbued in him by his father shaped his life. They were the love of medicine and the love of the theater.
Having heard Lincoln deliver an address the previous week, the young surgeon went to Ford’s Theatre hoping to study the president’s face at closer range. He observed it at very close range as he attended the fatally shot Lincoln through the night. Shot in the back of his head, Lincoln succumbed early the following morning.
Instead of backing himself on the piano, Felder employs an excellent ten-piece orchestra conducted by concertmaster Healy Henderson. Stephen Foster songs, such as “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Jeanie [sic] with the Light Brown Hair,” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” feature prominently in Felder’s score, expressing Leale’s feelings for the grieving Mary Todd and the mortally wounded president. Felder is responsible for the affecting orchestrations.
Though the one-man show lasts only 90 minutes, the audience receives knowledge or reminders of many little known facts and hears the words of a “crazy” volunteer that visits the Union Civil War wounded in the U.S. Army General Hospital in Armory Square. The oddball man holes himself up in corners and scribbles furiously. Of course it is Walt Whitman, penning his beloved poem “The Wound Dresser.” Comparisons might be made between Whitman and Leale, each comforting the wounded, in Whitman’s case everyman, and in Leale’s, the first U.S. president to be assassinated.
Felder also creates comparison between the two assassination plots, one in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and Booth’s co-conspirators, who planned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson as well, in hopes of bringing down Lincoln’s administration and bringing chaos in the North so that the South could rise again.
Leale’s 21-page report on which “An American Story” is based was filed away and forgotten for nearly 150 years and only rediscovered in 2012 at the National Archives.
Felder is also author and performer of the popular one-man shows “George Gershwin Alone,” “Monsieur Chopin,” “Beethoven as I Knew Him,” and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein.” He is a highly entertaining storyteller and at heart, a teacher. This viewer/listener does not grieve banishment of Felder’s piano from “An American Story.” If the entertainer would work on vocal contrast, ameliorate the nasal qualities of his forte, and refine his diphthongs, his efforts might fall more agreeably on critical ears. His pianissimo singing throughout is quite lovely.
An earlier, differently titled and differently focused version of this piece played last year at Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Joel Zwick, who is credited on the title page here with original direction. Also credit David Buess/Trevor Hay’s scenic design; Christopher Rynne’s lighting; Erik Carstensen’s sound; and Abigail Caywood’s costumes; and most of all by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder’s projection design.
Playing through February 3 at the Birch North Park Theatre, Felder’s “An American Story for actor and orchestra,” based on texts by Leale and Lincoln and the music and poetry of Stephen Foster, John Howard Payne, Henry Bishop and Walt Whitman, presents a slice of history, cleanly directed here by Hay. The show continues at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, through February 3, $58, birchnorthparktheatre.net or (619) 239-8836.