Backwoods Lawyer Hews A Path to the White House

`Abe Lincoln in Illinois' traces the journey of a statesman


Play by Robert Sherwood. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez. Starring Sam Waterston. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Lighting by Beverly Emmons. Sound by Guy Sherman/Aural Fixation. Original music by Robert Waldman. At the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center through Jan. 2.

AT the curtain call for ``Abe Lincoln in Illinois,'' a revival of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert Sherwood, there is a gasp from the audience as the huge cast, spread horizontally across the vast stage, takes its bow.

It's a stunning image because New York audiences are used to miniature dramas starring a handful of actors, not the kind of ambitious, large-scaled productions that used to be standard and of which this play is a splendid example.

``Abe Lincoln in Illinois,'' which stars Sam Waterston in the title role, traces Lincoln's career from his days as a sales clerk in New Salem, through his rise in politics and his courtship of Mary Todd, to his eventual election to the presidency. The darker side

Sherwood's historical epic is stirring theater - magnificently written, filled with humor and psychological insight. At 3 hours and 20 minutes, it does drag in places, particularly in a lengthy scene re-creating a Lincoln-Douglas debate about slavery.

But Waterston's dark-tinged portrayal and the mostly splendid supporting cast as directed by Gerald Gutierrez bring the history to life and remind us that Lincoln was a complex, deeply troubled man, not the icon that has become familiar through monuments and theme-park dioramas.

Sherwood's play is particularly effective at presenting Lincoln's wit and folksy humor, although Waterston does overplay the buffoonery during much of the first part.

But as the play goes on, and the character is reluctantly drawn into politics by party bosses and the manipulations of his ambitious wife, the performance deepens.

Although you can feel Waterston straining - he never achieves the effortless grace of Raymond Massey in the 1940 film version - his portrayal is ultimately powerful.

Ironically enough for a play with so many characters, the focus is so intently on Lincoln that it is almost a one-man show.

The large cast, filled such superb performers as George Hall, David Huddleston, Robert Westenberg, Robert Joy, and Joan MacIntosh, is not to be faulted, although one might wish that Lizbeth Mackay had more intensely captured Mary Todd's underlying hysteria.

John Lee Beatty's sets are wonderfully evocative recreations of 19th-century Americana, and the revolving platforms rival those in ``Les Miserables.'' They are beautifully illuminated by Beverly Emmons's lighting - she is not afraid to underlight a scene in order to more truthfully depict the effects created by the candles and gas lighting of the era.

One effect is astonishing, coming at the end of the play, when Lincoln makes a final speech and departs on a train bound for Washington. Facing down despair

As the train pulls away, with Waterston standing at the back, it recedes further and further into the distance, with the light eventually narrowing until we can see only Waterston's face. Finally it disappears.

It is a haunting image that perfectly expresses the aloneness and despair that this great man faced in dealing with the worst crisis this country has ever experienced.

A production like ``Abe Lincoln in Illinois'' is a rare and special event. It will be at Lincoln Center for only a limited time and is perfect for families.

For more sophisticated children, it will achieve the valuable dual purpose of turning them on to theater and history at the same time.

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