When Wayne Peter Liebman set out to write “Better Angels,” he intended to show the soulful side of Abraham Lincoln, otherwise now known as the “man on the penny.” With brilliant narration, an engaging story and a standing ovation to boot, the West Coast premiere of “Better Angels” at the Colony Theatre managed to do just that, by humanizing and bringing depth to the iconic stovepipe-hat-wearing Abe.
Directed by Dan Bonnell and starring James Read as Lincoln, David Dean Bottrell as Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, and McKerrin Kelly as the feisty Mrs. Harvey, “Better Angels” tells the story of the visits in 1863 between Lincoln and Harvey as she persuades him to establish a hospital in Wisconsin to benefit wounded soldiers who are otherwise dying in the midst of the Civil War.
Based on historic records and found text, “Better Angels” tells the tale of Harvey, a strong woman with fiery red hair who is quite persistent and butts heads with the tall, scruffy and easily amused Lincoln.
Kelly and Read shine as the duo placed on different sides of the power spectrum, but Bottrell’s Hay takes the spotlight, with his neatly combed hair, spectacles and cheeky personality.
“When a bond between heaven and hell is broken, only a story can mend it,” he exclaims.
Bottrell’s relatable and pleasant Hay brings the right amount of comedy to the stage, especially with his nicknames for Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln — “The Ancient” and “Harpy,” respectively.
The set, by Victoria Profitt, with its antique furniture, white columns and eye-catching portrait of Andrew Jackson, is well designed, yet a bit stark. But the glowing American flag, with its 45 stars, keeps the ambience of the 1860s in full force.
The lighting by Chris Wojcieszyn is truly instrumental in conveying the mood and brings another layer to already robust subject matter. The costumes, which were designed by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, are not only beautifully crafted, but true to their time, especially Harvey’s vibrant purple dress, complete with detailed black-lace trimmings.
“Better Angels” — winner of the Trustus Playwright Prize in 2008, the same year it was written — allows you to see beyond the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation and peer into the soul of a man who had a taste for lowbrow humor, had a heavy heart when it came to casualties and was “good because he wanted to be.”
Of course, it also explores America’s past, complete with mentions of generals, Lincoln struggling to write the Gettysburg Address and his strong moral convictions.
“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he says in a booming voice.
Liebman’s play is an enjoyable and fantastic look into the life and times of Lincoln, and certainly brings to light details of a significant man ingrained on such an insignificant amount of change.