note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Accomplished concert pianist-composer-director-actor-writer Hershey Felder has mesmerized audiences with his one-man, musical biographical portrayals of Chopin, Beethoven, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
In “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” his latest 90-minute, Eighty-Eight Entertainment production directed by Trevor Hay, Felder departs from his usual music-based biographies to present newly-discovered facts about President Abraham Lincoln - specifically his assassination, April 14,1865.
Using a few props, his signature, centrally-located piano, a portrait of George Washington overhead, and Andrew Wilder, Greg Sowizdrzal and Lawrence Siefert’s fantastic video-projected background images, Felder also spotlights a right-side, upper level theater box, draped with Lincoln’s presidential banner.
Felder starts off slowly, portraying a curator at the Chicago History Museum, Nettie Colburn Maynard’s great-great-great nephew, who welcomes us into a rarely-visited area - the attic. Along with draped pieces of furniture and memorabilia in the dusty space, is Lincoln’s alleged piano.
Erik Carstensen’s sound effects and Christopher Rynne’s lighting intensify dramatic scenes of Felder’s relating Lincoln’s assassination and dying moments, his penning the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg battlefield, and Civil War’s escalation.
He also incorporates Lincoln’s and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln’s, consulting with medium Nettie Colburn Maynard, who wrote a book detailing her experiences with the Lincolns.
During a too-breezy, desultory narrative, Felder sits at the piano, playing a few tunes, re-telling Nettie’s mystical tale about her fellow medium-pianist, Belle Miller. As Belle played a few songs for the president and some dignitaries, the piano elevated and fell to the music’s rhythm. Non-believing attendees then stood at the piano, trying to hold it down while Belle performed another song, but that spirited piano continued to ‘dance” with the music.
Felder fascinates and charms, playing Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah!”, “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home, “Home, Sweet Home,” and patriotic tunes anthemic to the Confederacy and Union.
Donning a Union military jacket, Felder infuses eye-witness details about John Wilkes Booth’s shooting Lincoln, Booth’s notorious escape, and Lincoln’s final hours. This information is related in a previously undiscovered 21-22 page document penned by Lincoln’s on-the-spot, attending physician, army surgeon Dr. Charles Leale. After 147 years, a researcher found that report in a box at the National Archives in Washington, DC in 2008. It was later presented to the public in 2012.
Dr. Leale, who attended the play in Ford’s Theatre that ill-fated night, was only 23 years old, and was in charge of caring for wounded soldiers in a Washington hospital. As cries of “Is there a doctor in the house?” rang through the theater, Leale raced to the president’s box and administered immediate medical care, discovering Lincoln had been shot through the back of his head.
It was also Leale who insisted on moving the president to the Peterson House, located across the street from the theater, where he continued caring for Lincoln until the president’s physicians arrived. Although Felder lingers too long on Leale’s childhood and his exposure to theater, including Jim Crow minstrel shows, burlesque-variety shows, and a famous young actor named John Wilkes Booth, who savored applause, he sensitively relates Leale’s anguish, knowing he couldn’t save Lincoln, despite Mary Todd Lincoln’s pleas. He recalls how she had to be removed from the bedroom because of her hysteric outbursts. Leale also allowed actress Laura Keene to cradle the president’s head in her lap, while she sang Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” to him.
In a final act of kindness and caring, Leale wrote he held the president’s hand, to let Lincoln know he had a friend there.
Leale never spoke about his brilliant medical care to Lincoln until 1909, when he was asked to speak in a centennial commemoration of Lincoln’s birthday. Leale died at 90, in 1932, the oldest eye-witness to Lincoln’s death.
Felder then re-spools, back to the beginning, ending with a majestic flourish.
There’s so much fascinating information in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” which Felder delivers with his fabulous flair. However, the play needs editing, cutting draggy, extraneous deadwood. Feldler’s magnificent piano-playing, portrayal and fact-finding, enveloped in spectacular stage effects, are divine.
BOX INFO: One-man, one-act, 90-minute play, written and performed by Hershey Felder at ArtsEmerson:The World on Stage, at Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston Theater District, Boston. appearing to May 31: May 28,29, at 7:30 p.m.; May 30, 8 p.m.; May 31, 4,8 p.m. Tickets:$25-$89. Visit www.artsemerson.org or call 617-824-8400.