Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Backwoods Lawyer Hews A Path to the White House `Abe Lincoln in Illinois' Traces the Journey of a Statesman

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Backwoods Lawyer Hews A Path to the White House `Abe Lincoln in Illinois' Traces the Journey of a Statesman

Article excerpt

ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS

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. …

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