“I like to write about the things that matter, whether they matter emotionally, or whether they matter dramatically, or whether they matter politically. If you can get all those in one, that’s great….Politics happens to be, for better or worse, a major concern of our time and place,” John Strand tells me. We were discussing the upcoming DC revival of his play Lincolnesque.
Keegan Theatre, in choosing to bring back the comedy which they gave its area debut in 2009, believes Washingtonians can use a break from political scandals, attack ads, and the current deep partisan divide. Lincolnesque—while taking place in DC and featuring characters that are Capital Hill archetypes—focuses more on optimism and soaring political speeches that have inspired the country—the ones deemed “Lincolnesque.”
“The play is not strictly political,” Director Colin Smith says. “It doesn’t hit on specific political issues….It’s more about deception…and ethics in politics and ideals and optimism and hope for a more positive approach to the campaign world and politics as a whole.”
Lincolnesque revolves around two brothers: Leo (Michael Innocenti) is a speechwriter for a congressman who’s in danger of losing his seat, and Francis (Brandon McCoy) is a psychiatric outpatient who believes himself to be Abraham Lincoln. With the midterm election coming up, Leo turns to Francis for inspiration, hoping to write Lincolnesque speeches that could help his congressman win.
“In part, [the character of Francis] was an excuse for me to get Lincoln’s poetry—because I really think his writing is poetic—on stage and in the mouth of the character,” Strand says. “Lincoln is just a wonderful example, not without flaws, but a wonderful example of integrity and a kind of poetic articulation in the political world.”
According to both Strand and Smith, Lincolnesque’s commentary on politicians and the people who work in the electoral sphere is timeless.
“These are characters who are on Capitol Hill [now] and they do the things that those staffers do,” Strand says. “They overwork, they worry, they panic. It can happen in any era.”
And while he’s made small tweaks to the play based on the current political climate, Strand veers away from allowing today’s politics to take center stage. “There’s an acknowledgment of what the present political situation is, but it doesn’t delve into it in any detail,” Strand says. “That’s really not the goal of the play.”
Most of the cast members from Keegan’s 2009 production have returned. Innocenti, Susan Marie Rhea, and Stan Shulman reprise their roles. McCoy plays Francis for the first time.
“The actors are so good. They’re hilarious,” Smith says. “I mean, Mike Innocenti is such an amazing natural comedian…so smart and quick. The part of Leo can potentially be played as really overbearing if you don’t find the humor in it. He’s just so stressed and in such a difficult place….Watching Mike work to find the humor and the love for his brother and all that … that’s always exciting to me.”
This isn’t the first play that Strand has set in front of a political backdrop. He’s written pieces about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (The Originalist) and the Iran-Contra affair (Three Nights in Tehran). Strand’s lived in the DC area for 20 years, so he chooses to write about these types of people and topics because he pays close attention to the political scene. He also covers politics because of how it’s connected to theatre.
Produced by Keegan Theatre
closes October 14, 2018
Details and tickets
“I think theatre is always political,” Strand says. “When you get people in a room and you get actors up on a stage, it’s, in itself, a political act. Theatre is a forum for discussing those issues that mean a lot to us as a society. It’s a natural platform.”
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I wanted to know Strand’s opinion on what’s considered “Lincolnesque,” so I asked if he believed any recent speeches embodied the word.
“I thought Obama’s speech in Chicago, about what he feels needs to happen to correct the egregious imbalance in the political field, I thought it was beautifully done,” Strand says.
“Fortunately, I am hopeful because, out of this political darkness, I am seeing a great awakening of citizenship all across the country.” — President Barack Obama, Chicago, June 7, 2018.