Stage & Dance

Learning more about Mr. Lincoln

What do you say about Abraham Lincoln? Hailed as one of America's greatest presidents, or even the greatest, he's been written about, spoken about and paid tribute in countless ways.

That's what Sandra Fenichel Asher faced when she accepted the Lexington Children's Theatre's commission to write a play about the 16th president.

But she also thought about what she actually knew about Lincoln.

"I had your basic elementary school knowledge of Lincoln," Asher says from her home in Lancaster, Pa. "Honest Abe, Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation and not much else. So I thought this would be an opportunity to dive into the topic."

In addition to being interested in Lincoln, she had a ready resource in her husband, retired Drury University history professor Harvey Asher. She recalled that when she first met him, in college, the only thing on his dorm wall was a copy of the Gettysburg Address.

Her aim, for herself and the audience, was to humanize the president known for his great speeches.

"The man just got more fascinating and complex, and it became more terrifying because it didn't seem there was a way to capture it all in a play for young people," Asher says, recalling her research to write the play.

"I was amazed to read how he educated himself to become this incredibly wise leader. It's really remarkable, beyond remarkable.

"I had read about his depression, mainly early in life, and he had good reason to be depressed. He was unique, and the more you read about it, you are stunned by ... his intellect and his heart and his ability to be idealistic and practical."

Many of those facets are on stage in Keeping Mr. Lincoln, which opens Sunday at the Children's Theatre.

Four actors play a variety of parts, including Lincoln.

The play starts with Lincoln's law partner, Greensburg native Billy Herndon — who is also portrayed in Kentucky author Wade Hall's recent play, One Man's Lincoln — setting out to tell the real story of the president.

Then we are flashed back to Hardin County, where Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809, to Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Young Abe quickly emerges as a precocious child reading voraciously and writing on any surface he can find.

As Lincoln gets older, we get stories about youthful pranks and early successes, and start to hear more and more of the man's own words.

"I've done other historical plays, and I like to use the words of the people of the time as much as possible," says Asher, who has had other plays performed at Lexington Children's Theatre, including Too Many Frogs and A Woman Called Truth, about abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth.

Keeping Mr. Lincoln director Vivian Snipes says she has enjoyed working with Asher and her script, which has a lot of flexibility. That's important because the play is traveling to schools around the region in addition to its public performances.

"She shows the man at work and puts the quotes in the context of the time when they were making history," Snipes says.

During the Lincoln bicentennial, which officially lasts through 2010, teachers "want to see those historical ties played out for their students," Snipes says.

Students will see that, despite being celebrated in history, Lincoln's presidency was a trying time dominated by the Civil War, which pitted families, including Lincoln's, against each other. In one scene, a Confederate boy asks that his brother, wounded and imprisoned by the Union Army, be released so he can die at home.

It is a scene that shows Lincoln could not be summed up easily.

"He was obsessed with grasping complex ideas and talking about them in a way that made you understand them," Asher says.

She hopes the play will help students gain a greater understanding of the man, greater than she had after elementary school.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader