Wisdom and winces from Honest Abe

Times Staff Writer

The list of actors to have portrayed Abraham Lincoln on stage and screen is remarkably distinguished: Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook and Walter Huston, to name a few. This much-dramatized president is a mature actor's dream role, offering the chance to act out the weathered and self-doubting soul of an incontestably great man.

Peter King Beach's solo drama "The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln," currently at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, follows the president's journey from his humble Kentucky beginnings through the end of the Civil War. It tells the story of a dark period in U.S. history, but this is an upbeat drama that packages Lincoln's life into a wholesome, feel-good tribute.

Lincoln is played by the presidentially named actor Granville Van Dusen, who brings a folksy charm to the story. Narrating from somewhere in the afterlife, he tells us early on that his mission is to correct people's perception of him as humorless and eternally melancholy -- an image immortalized on the $5 bill.

He breaks the ice by revealing embarrassing personal information (bunions, constipation) and also talks about his childhood, particularly his hatred of farm life. The play meanders between personal and political anecdotes without any strong sense of direction until Lincoln gets to the Civil War. Listening to him recount the number of generals he went through before appointing Ulysses S. Grant is a sobering reminder of just how close the Union came to losing to the Confederacy.

Van Dusen's performance is dignified if somewhat too ingratiating. He plays Lincoln as a crinkly-eyed old man who doles out wisdom like thick slices of apple pie. The play's aw-shucks simplicity begins to feel suspect when Lincoln talks about his wife, Mary Todd, who famously suffered from mental illness.

This production borrows partially from a previous staging by the late Oscar-winning director Delbert Mann ("Marty"). Visually, it's efficient and economical, but it also flirts with historical kitsch, like a museum diorama that's suddenly come to life. As re-staged by Jenny Sullivan, the play works best when it allows Lincoln to speak in his own words, such as when he recites the Gettysburg Address. These moments, which are much too rare, have an unforced authenticity that's more compelling than anything a dramatist could invent.

The play concludes on the night Lincoln and his wife attend a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington. With a valedictory flourish, Lincoln bids us farewell as he prepares for what we know will be his final evening. Even in a moment of imminent tragedy, the play is never less than cheerful -- a simplistic but distinctly American view of history.

david.ng@latimes.com

'The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln'

Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 2

Price: $25 to $37.50

Contact: (818) 955-8101, www.falcontheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Also

Where: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22-23.

Price: $25 (sold out)

Contact: (562) 467-8818, www.cerritoscenter.com

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