In his drama "Better Angels," Wayne Peter Liebman combines imagination with the historical record and actually-uttered words to create a life-like image of the 16th president. The play by the Los Angeles resident is getting its first full production at Trustus Theatre as winner of the Trustus Playwright's Festival.
While the material - a woman trying to persuade Abraham Lincoln to open military hospitals in the North - may sound dry, Liebman makes it work, giving us a Lincoln full of self-doubts, strong convictions and even a decent sense of humor. This certainly isn't the first dramatic attempt to paint a picture of the man behind the face on the penny, but it is a fine one.
What's not fine is the cut-rate production Trustus has mounted, with little in the way of sets, costumes or makeup. The theater attempts to flesh out the bare bones with projections of Civil War photos, but Friday, opening night, they didn't work during the first act and added little to the second when they were washed out by stage lighting.
A play featuring a famous historical figure might also attempt to have the actor filling that role look like the character. Trustus' Lincoln has a scattering of chin whiskers, thinning blond hair and is only of average height. Despite this, James Harley does a very credible job without ever overdoing it - even when he has to jump onto his desk and imitate a baboon. (That's his response to one of the many letters and editorials ranting about his incompetence.)
Having an actor who has not been made to look like the Lincoln could be a conceptual element on the part of director Larry McMullen - but if that's the case why not have everyone dressed in 21st century street clothes?
As Cordelia Harvey, the woman lobbying for the hospitals, Vicky Saye Henderson presents a powerful presence; she arrives with plans to dislike the president, but becomes a confidant and friend.
Michael Hart portrays Lincoln aide John Hay and acts as the narrator, often speaking directly to the audience. Narrators are usually cumbersome, but with the way this play is structured - rather like the aide's memories of the man - it works fairly well.
The play moves toward Lincoln's Gettysburg address, but the playwright is wise not to have it spoken in the play. Still, the play would be stronger with less telling and more showing.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the play is the subtle flirtation between Lincoln and Harvey, which the playwright explores in a surprising and beautiful manner as a coda.
These new plays run only seven days and one can understand why the theater doesn't do anything fancy with them. On the other hand, the offer of a full, professional staging to the playwright winners - and the audience paying the same price as for any show - doesn't appear to be fulfilled.
"Better Angels" runs through Aug. 23. Call (803) 254-9732 or go to trustus.org.
Reach Day at (803) 771-8518.