The last time Lincoln Center Theater decided to second-look a “lost” show from the ’30s, the “neglected” writer was Cole Porter, the attraction was a revival of “Anything Goes,” and the payoff was a smash hit, a long run and three Tony Awards. With its lavish and faithful mounting of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1938 “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” the company takes a somewhat greater risk, and the payoff is considerably more limited. This is a fine production and a first-rate vehicle not only for Sam Waterston in the title role but for a huge roster of character actors.
But while the play’s 12 scenes unfold with cinematic finesse, nothing else director Gerald Gutierrez and his design team have in their bag of tricks can make the play — which won Sherwood the second of his three Pulitzers and launched the Playwrights Company of which he was a founding member — seem any less dated. The writing, particularly in the early scenes depicting Lincoln’s youth in New Salem, Ill., is wooden and declamatory; lines like “This is the Rutledge Tavern…” place the action, to be sure, but they focus a listener’s attention on the creaky dramaturgy.
To attribute these problems to the style of a different era doesn’t work; polished, unself-conscious writing was as valued then as it is now. But it’s also true that Sherwood had an agenda in drawing parallels between Lincoln and Roosevelt, in bolstering the notion of America as the bright hope of the world as Hitler was devouring Europe, and in that, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” has more in common with the baldly patriotic movies coming out of Hollywood at the time than with Broadway.
Nevertheless, Sherwood’s hero is no stick figure. The writer didn’t shy away from Lincoln’s moodiness, indecision and the fear of failure; these all offer shading to the portrait of a moral giant. Early on, Lincoln sees 12 slaves chained together on a boat en route to Vicksburg, Miss., where they were to be sold; the encounter haunts him more than any abstract debate could.
As a nonprofit company, part of Lincoln Center Theater’s public trust is to present productions like this — a mainstay of resident theaters outside New York — and that it has put so much force of talent behind “Abe Lincoln” is commendable.
Rough and charming, a raspy croak in his voice, Waterston works hard at the image of Lincoln as awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin — traits Lincoln shrewdly turned to his advantage as the non-politician’s politician, and which Waterston makes appealing. There are fine performances from Lizbeth Mackay as Mary Todd (though Ann McDonough nearly steals the show as her pouty sister, Elizabeth Edwards); David Huddleston as Lincoln’s mentor, Judge Bowling Green; Robert Westenberg and Robert Joy as the pros who groomed Lincoln; David Aaron Baker as his law partner; and Brian Reddy as a somewhat foppish Stephen A. Douglas.
John Lee Beatty’s designs for nearly as many settings as there are scenes are models of simplicity, and Beverly Emmons lights them with her usual broad and reliably tasteful palette. Jane Greenwood’s costumes seem admirably lived-in by the characters wearing them.
If none of this makes a convincing case for “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” as a classic, it does remind us that theater can have purposes beyond brainless entertainment, and even at that, it’s never boring.