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‘Lincoln’ Seeks to Set the Facts Straight

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When an old woman rebuked him for his conciliatory attitude toward the South, which she felt should be “destroyed” after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln replied, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Among the host of Lincoln anecdotes, this one perhaps best illustrates Lincoln’s resonant humanity. Indeed, the ultimate tragedy for the South was Lincoln’s assassination, which squelched the President’s plans for a speedy reconciliation and plunged the region into a prolonged, punitive period of reconstruction.

It’s another tragedy of history that this protean genius was cut down before he could write his memoirs. In “The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln,” a solo show at the Matrix starring Granville Van Dusen, playwright Peter King Beach sets out to rectify that loss.

In the play, the assassinated Lincoln, presumably addressing us from the Beyond, speaks out to set the muddled facts about his life straight. Beach’s mildly revisionist drama flouts the popularly held notion, dramatized by Robert E. Sherwood in his landmark 1930s play “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” that Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd was a carping shrew who tormented her husband unceasingly before gradually descending into insanity. Beach holds that Lincoln adored his wife, the victim of an unprecedented smear campaign after his death. As for Lincoln’s unrequited love of Ann Rutledge, that is the stuff of pesky but persistent rumor, or so Beach would allow.

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Though the facts of Lincoln’s life are intrinsically dramatic, any biography of Lincoln is also problematic because of the sheer familiarity of the historical material. Fortunately, Beach lends new vigor to the known data by treading a slightly different path. Although Beach’s treatment of the political Lincoln, particularly his presidency during the war years, is vaguely episodic, his handling of Lincoln’s personal life, including his impassioned defense of the much-maligned Mary, is touching and overdue.

Another potential problem is the popular perception of Lincoln that, thanks to various dramatic portrayals from Raymond Massey to the Disney animatronics version, has ossified over the decades into a carefully studied austerity. Under the capable guidance of veteran director Delbert Mann, Van Dusen blows every vestige of sanctimony off a potentially musty subject. Van Dusen’s is a twinkling Lincoln, brimming with ironic sagacity, as wily and practical as he is compassionate.

Lincoln wrote all his own speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, which beautifully closes the first act. Perfect and concise, undimmed by time, the Gettysburg Address is Lincoln’s most lasting memorial. In this era of spin doctors, speech writers and political advisors, this thoughtful, well-rendered drama reminds us of just how powerful one man, following the pure dictates of his own conscience, can be.

* “The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Wednesdays only, 8 p.m. Ends April 17. $12. (213) 852-1445. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.


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