MR. LINCOLN -- At Ford's Theater through February 10.
Somewhere between insightful biography and waxworks is "Mr. Lincoln," a one-man show about President Lincoln at Ford's Theater.
Just seeing Lincoln on the stage, below the commemoratively kept box where he was actually shot, is exciting. A son et lumiere, lighting the box while the president's words were spoken, would have been heavily dramatic even without stovepipe hats. So one understands and appreciates the restraint of the theater's executive producer, Frankie Hewitt, in not having latched onto any old Lincoln play long ago, and in having chosen one restrained enough to use the historical site of the crime with only a nod and a light.
Herbert Mitgang's "Mr. Lincoln" is, indeed, a judicious mix of homely stories and the Gettysburg Address, courtship and family financial quarrels, the retail whiskey business and the Douglas debates, war-room bulletins and press notices. Roy Dotrice goes valiently from one to the other, successfully acting tall (he is short) and struggling convincingly in and out of his long jacket.
But the excitement never exceeds that of hearing Lincoln's words spoken by a man who looks like Lincoln in the theater where Lincoln was shot. The excitement of history through revealing dramatic biography has not been added.
It is, instead, the kind of mid-20th-century approach to American history characterized by Frances FitzGerald in her recent "America Revised" as "astonishingly dull" because the good guys are relentlessly trying their best, struggling with "problems" that seem to have sprung out of nowhere.
No one is suggesting that there was a not-good side of Lincoln to be shown.
His greatness is convincing, and anyway, the wart is there, right on the side of his mouth where it belongs.
But having a man describe -- with calmness, understanding and great statesmanlike if not religious compassion -- the precise details of his own murder is to suggest that he lacked basic humanity. Our introduction to Abraham Lincoln is his meticulous and emotionless account of how the bullet entered his head, and that reminds him of his life, as later his habit of being reminded of "a story" is used in the dialogue.
Intellectual and economic forces, let alone people, that contributed to the tumult of the period are barely sketched in. The play merely keeps saying that slavery was "bad," but "brothers" fought on both sides of the war and "God knows who was right," and unfortunately somehow a legacy of "hatred" was built up, and that killed President Lincoln.
Necessarily, much must be missing from a one-person play. But without the power of history to knock against, Lincoln can be represented by a dummy and a recording.