'Mister Lincoln': one-man show helps us remember

After 30 years on commercial television, "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" is making its PBS debut, with a series of specials based on the lives of famous people. The first presentation is a one-man show called "Mister Lincoln," (PBS, Feb. 9, check local listings for time and channel).

Honest Abe is played by Roy Dotrice, a veteran of the one-man format: "Brief Lives," in which he soloed as 17-century diarist John Aubrey, ran for 1,700 performances theatrically and was excerpted on TV. Aubrey was a musty old coot, though, whereas Lincoln was a man of enormous public presence. Dotrice makes the transition deftly, playing the 16th President with a compelling blend of dignity, charm, and vulnerability.

The show begins strongly, with Lincoln recalling a slave auction he witnessed in his youth and speculating that this sickening sight may have shaped his attitudes for the rest of his life. From there, we follow him through most of his career -- turning to law, losing his first election, courting his future wife, running for president, freeing the slaves, suffering through the Civil War. It takes 90 minutes to plunge through these events, which come to life through speeches, reconstructed scenes, and one-sided conversations, all assembled by Herbert Mitgang, who wrote the script.

The weaknesses of the show stem largely from its theatrical origins. It was taped before a live audience at Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated, and it's always clear that Dotrice is playing for a hall much bigger than anybody's living room. He declaims and orates, even when the situation calls for softer tones and smaller gestures.

Of course, Dotrice has no choice about this, and the audience does lend a certain immediacy to the proceedings, but we miss the intimacy and nuance that first-rate television can provide in its purest form.The script might have been more rigorously edited, too. There are dead spots along the way, which serve only to remind us that many of Lincoln's words were a lot less inspired than the Gettysburg Address. And there's some flat humor. Nobody needs stale though historic jokes like "I wanted to dance with her in the worst way -- and I did."

Still and all, "Mister Lincoln" is frequently moving and instructive, especially when it touches on conditions that are less often recalled than the Emancipation Proclamation -- Lincoln's recurring melancholia, his endless fascination with Shakespeare, and the grief that marred his family life. There are superb historical vignettes, too, such as the episode in which Lincoln collects "nay" votes from his entire Cabinet, then says, "The ayes have it" and signs the bill.

Moments like these are priceless, and responsible programs like "Mister Lincoln" provide the valuable service of helping us remember them forever. One hopes similar treasures are present in the other Hallmark specials slated for early this year, which deal with individuals extravagantly different from one another in all ways, except perhaps their affinity for language: George Bernard Shaw and Casey Stengel.

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