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Better Angel charms and informs

November 16, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Carol Davis

BURBANK, California–History aficionados, those scholars who possess a fascination with  Civil War History and Abraham Lincoln in particular, may know the best little secret about Cordelia Harvey, but others will not unless they make their way to the Colony Theatre in beautiful downtown Burbank to see the West Coast Premiere of Wayne Peter Liebman’s Better Angels.

Since Barack Obama made it on to the American landscape, the comparisons to President  Obama and our 16th president ran rampant before during and after his election, especially in speculating about how Obama would select his cabinet. Doris Kearns Goodwin benefitted well with the announcement by presidential aides that Obama’s favorite reading (at the time) was her book Team of Rivals that went into minute details of how Lincoln picked his own cabinet.

That said, after reading the book, I learned more about Lincoln that fell in lockstep with Leibman’s play than I thought was possible. Goodwin’s history is good reading, as is Liebman’s play. Does that mean one has to read her book to follow this meticulously written and well-documented play? The answer is it speaks for itself, so no.

 Under the careful direction Dan Bonnell, Liebman’s 90-minute chronicle moves along at a nice pace while unraveling some little known facts about a little known woman and a series of private meetings with Mr. Lincoln.

Liebman’s three-person play (among his awards for playwriting include a New Play Commission Grant by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture) is presented in both flashback (1863) and in a series of university hall lectures (1909) as told to us by his then personal secretary John Hay (a splendid David Dean Bottrell). Again for those who have read anything about Lincoln one always comes away with the impression of a very pragmatic and principled decision maker. Here too we see the distress of his not being able to make his mind up during this exchange as well.

In this little piece of history, Lincoln (a charming and capable James Read) agrees to see Mrs. Cordelia Harvey (equally charming and convincing McKerrin Kelly) the recently widowed wife of a Wisconsin governor who pleads for a new hospital to be built in the North so the wounded Union soldiers might be cared for and recuperate closer to their homes, thereby making their recuperation faster and putting them in a better frame of mind to return to the fighting after healing. Her logic was based on a visit to inspect the hospitals in the South. There she found the soldiers suffering from chronic dysentery brought about by unsanitary conditions.

The narrative shifts back and forth showing a young Hay, Lincoln’s then aide, setting up the appointments for the two to talk and then back to and older more hunched over and crippled Hay filling us in on the details. But the crux of the play takes us into the relationship of the two protagonists as they discuss, become familiar and feel comfortable being frank and showing an open admiration with and for each other. It almost sets us up with a ‘what if’ question.

History has a way of debunking the what ifs that dance in the playwright’s imagination even if it does pique the audience’s interest, however.  The reality of the situation and after several somber and sometimes personal discussions and still after dismissing the idea many times Lincoln finally signed a bill approving the establishment of a Northern Hospital. Exit Cordelia Harvey. 

History will also show after the unfortunate and untimely accidental death of her husband by drowning, Mrs. Harvey, a strong willed and determined woman. was the original Florence Nightingale of the Civil War known as the ‘Wisconsin Angel’. The wounded she visited (and she saw most) were impressed by her ‘motherly heart’ and ‘sympathetic nature’. The Harvey United States Army General Hospital was established in 1863.

Liebman’s play is absorbing and factual to the core sprinkled with his own words vis-à-vis their personal (transcribed dialogue) conversations and interactions. Put aside the fact that James Read’s only resemblance to Lincoln is that he is tall, one never doubts who he was.  It was the intention of the playwright not to get caught up in a look-alike contest. Reads’s Lincoln is slow to answer, polite to a fault, youthful and amusing, dressed appropriately for the period (A. Jeffrey Schoenberg) and at times very sexy. Playing opposite Kelly’s oft times determined and stern mannerisms they formed a bond of friendship, (possibly some romantic inclination might have occurred) that neither expected.

Borttell is amazing as he shifts, with the simple weight of a foot or place of his hand, from young aide to elder lecture/statesman. He’s a perfect fit in this trio of professionals. 

Productions values reign high with Victoria Profitt’s sparse set featuring Lincoln’s office flanked by columns and with outside scenery in the background. Chris Wojcieszyn’s lighting and Cricket S. Meyers sound design rounded out a perfect theatre experience.

It’s always fun to be in the Colony. Try it you’ll like it.

Better Angels plays through Nov. 22.

 *
Davis is a San Diego-based theatre critic

For more information visit colonytheatre.org

 

See you at the theatre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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