A delusional janitor, believing he is Abraham Lincoln, helps write speeches that inspire a political campaign. In lesser hands, this premise would run sitcom thin. Yet the talented playwright John Strand takes the story in unexpected directions, creating a pleasing political fantasy that touches the heart and the funny bone.
Leo (Michael Innocenti) is a sympathetic schlub who has more on his plate than he can handle; he is a speechwriter in the final month of campaign for an endangered mediocre Congressman; his new boss Carla (Susan Marie Rhea), a dominating message maven, has been brought in from the corporate world to try and save the campaign; and his brother Francis (Peter Finnegan), is a psychiatric outpatient recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital despite having a powerful delusion that he is Abraham Lincoln.
Francis was once a political genius who snapped under the pressure of the soul-sucking, all-consuming evil world of Washington, DC. All that’s left is a charming innocent (think Chance the Gardener in Being There) who finds comfort reciting Lincoln’s speeches and walking around in a long coat. Francis does find companionship from a homeless friend who agrees to be his Secretary of War and from a legal kingmaker who enjoys the janitor’s common wisdom (both capably played by Stan Shulman.)
The central dilemma of the play is whether it’s possible to handle the conflict between wanting to do the right things and wanting to do the things that will lead to success and political power. Francis frequently recites the famous line that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” and the audience begins to appreciate that this conflict can also exist within one’s soul.
The best part of the play involves the relationship between Leo and Carla. At first, they battle over competing prescriptions for reviving the ailing campaign, neither of which work. When some disguised Lincoln oratory helps revitalize the campaign, the rush of success even leads to an improbable coupling between the two. This dance of love and war is witty and fun, and handled with great grace by both Strand and the performers.
Susan Marie Rhea gives a terrific performance as Carla. She takes a character that could be the stereotypical castrating woman and fills her with zest and just enough depth to make plausible Leo’s comment that Carla is a closet idealist. She also handles the comedy with immense skill. After Leo describes Francis as psychotic because he thinks he’s a legendary historic figure, Carla dryly observes that “You’ve just described half of Washington.”
Michael Innocenti makes Leo a lovable loser whose engaging fits amp up the comedy. It may have helped if he could also have shown a little more openness to the temptations of success. Peter Finnegan ably walks a tightrope in his portrayal of Francis as an innocent with undertones of perceptive understanding.
Lincolnesque is a comedy-drama with a touching twist ending. The emotional power of the play depends upon some serious shifts in mood which director Mark Rhea handles with skill and sensitivity.
Despite the obligatory Bush jab and the general criticisms of politics, this play (set in 2006) does not offer much meaningful political satire. You just accept that the Lincolnesque inspirational oratory represents the right kind of goodness that should inspire us all with the enthusiastic naiveté of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The black box staging with its simple columns and projection screen offer a nice abstract setting that focuses attention on Strand’s interesting characters and clever dialogue.
While John Strand is a gifted and intelligent playwright who has written many successful works (in particular, the MacArthur Award-winning Lovers and Executioners and the book for Michael John LaChiusa’s The Highest Yellow) parts of the plot of this play are merely convenient and will not seem credible to anyone with much political or electoral knowledge. Contrary to what the play suggests, many speechwriters do plunder the past and most politicians are thrilled to give inspirational speeches that don’t take positions (alienating part of the electorate) or attack their opponent (which lowers your favorability rating, too). Yet if you just go with the story, you will find an intelligence in the humor and an emotional depth that elevates Lincolnesque above many contemporary works with political themes.
by John Strand
directed by Mark A. Rhea
produced by Keegan Theatre
reviewed by Steven McKnight
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.