Review: "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" at Intiman humanizes and illuminates the coming of age of our revered 16th president, writes Misha Berson.

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In Intiman Theatre’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” we first meet the title character in the early 1830s, as a rugged, uncouth young fellow with no money, little self-esteem, few prospects — but a voracious intellect, and a gift for friendship.

When we leave Mr. Lincoln, in 1861, bearded and formally garbed, he’s standing on a railway platform. Tested and tempered by marriage, political service and a solidified moral commitment to national liberty and unity, he bids his youth and Illinois friends farewell to fulfill his destiny as our country’s 16th president.

Between these two iconic images of Lincoln, playwright Robert E. Sherwood has celebrated a revered leader, and humanized his rugged path to greatness.

But in Intiman Theatre’s splendidly fluid staging of the rarely performed, Pulitzer Prize-honored, 1939 drama, director Sheila Daniels also stresses how it took a village to prod, encourage and ready Lincoln for the trials that awaited him in Washington, D.C.

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The community conjured here is not the small army of actors called for in Sherwood’s script, but 19 performers seamlessly shifting through many roles and a dozen scenes — the latter interlinked by rousing folk tunes led by musical director John Ackermann.

To keep this epic (the first in Intiman’s second American Cycle series) laudably brisk and smooth, Daniels and set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams created a simple, elegant visual framework. A pair of rough wooden towers bracket the stage. And a neutral back screen allows for the silhouetted tableaus and rich-hued vistas in L.B. Morse’s incandescent lighting scheme.

In less skilled and adept hands, the script might well bog down in the heavy furnishings and plodding dramaturgy of its outmoded genre: the reverential history pageant.

But there’s no concealing that “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” has only one fully formed character. Fortunately, he is the ever-fascinating Abe Lincoln. And he is conveyed in a variegated, richly moving portrayal by Erik Lochtefeld.

With dynamics rather than melodramatics, Lochtefeld evokes a conflicted man with a civil war “going on inside of me” long before he presided over the national Civil War.

Lochtefeld’s honest, fretful Abe is “no fighting man,” but doesn’t hesitate to rough up the town bully (played by Matt Shimkus). Bashful and uncertain with women, he manages to woo and wed the higher-born Mary Todd (Mary Jane Gibson).

This is Abe the witty raconteur who frustrates loyal friends — businessman Josh Speed (Hans Altwies), politician Ninian Edwards (Reginald Andre Jackson) — with his mercurial nature and lack of ambition.

And this is the Abe prone to bouts of morbid depression and guilt. In one fraught scene, Lochtefeld’s weeping, distraught Lincoln nearly commits suicide over the death of first love Ann Rutledge (Angela DiMarco).

Tall and lanky, with unkempt dark hair and a slanted gait that suggests a skiff leaning into a hard wind, Lochtefeld is a good physical match for Lincoln.

And in a tenor voice (pitched like Lincoln’s) he eloquently delivers excerpts of famed speeches — most memorably, a brilliantly argued attack on slavery from Abe’s senatorial election debates with Stephen Douglas (the equally articulate R. Hamilton Wright).

The rest of the solid cast makes what it can of utilitarian supporting roles, with Altwies’ genial Josh, Peter Dylan O’Connor’s impassioned Billy Herndon (Lincoln’s Springfield law partner) and Russell Hodgkinson (a shrewd Whig Party pol) providing jots of personality.

Gibson makes a prim, demanding but not very convincing Mary Lincoln, a future First Lady as complex as her husband — and even more mentally fragile.

As a citizen of his own time, Sherwood consciously drew parallels in the play between the totemic U.S. debate over states’ rights and slavery and the fierce debate over whether the U.S. should enter World War II. (A former pacifist, the playwright considered it morally imperative to fight fascism.)

“Abe Lincoln in Illinois” also speaks to our own era on occasion. The political corruption Lincoln faced, the challenges in leading a divided nation, his quest to uphold “the fundamental virtues of our democracy” — these echo ongoing tensions in the American experiment.

The show is very suitable for young patrons — but not just as history lesson. It’s also an act of theatrical resurrection that turns a musty work into an immediate, enriching experience about a life cut tragically short — but very meaningfully lived.

Misha Berson:

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