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THEATER REVIEW: “An American Story For Actor And Orchestra” looks at Lincoln's last hours

The surgeon who attended President Lincoln in his last hours was a 23-year-old Union Army medic who slunk away after calling the death, despondent that he had failed Mary Todd Lincoln’s charge to “keep my husband alive.”

Dr. Charles Augustus Leale’s first-person account of Lincoln’s last hours, written in 1867 for the “Congressional Record,” was only made public in 2009.

Now, Hershey Felder offers the world premiere of “An American Story For Actor And Orchestra” – a one-man show about Dr. Leale and his efforts to save Lincoln’s life – through Feb. 3 at Birch North Park Theater.

Felder, an accomplished pianist and actor, has spent the past 17 years performing what has become known as his Composer Sonata, a group of four shows about composers George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein.

Here, he gets away from the piano to describe through Dr. Leale’s eyes the events of those fateful last hours. Felder has also written the score (based on Stephen Foster’s well-known songs), performed here by an 11-person orchestra.

The story opens in 1932, when the 90-year-old Dr. Leale (in the last year of his life) tells us a bit about his childhood, including his first theater experience at a “Hamlet” matinee with his father. A later foray to a minstrel show, which included the racially insensitive character Jim Crow, turned into a teaching moment when his father stormed out of the theater with Leale in tow, to explain that “you must never, ever become a man without respect.”

Leale’s father was an Army medic; his son followed in his footsteps and at the time of the assassination the younger Dr. Leale was a surgeon treating Union officers at the hospital in Armory Square, Washington, D.C.

It was chance and an interest in physiognomy that put the young surgeon in the Ford Theater on that fateful night. A few days before the assassination, Leale had passed the White House while the President was giving what turned out to be his last address. Noting the unusual contours of Lincoln’s face, Leale decided to find a way to get closer to him in order to study it.

When he heard the Lincolns would attend “Our American Cousin” at the Ford Theater, he bought a ticket, and was about 40 feet from the President when the shot was fired. Leale, the first physician on the scene, was given authority to treat by the President’s wife.

It must have been a difficult assignment. He knew immediately that Lincoln could not survive, that in fact he probably wouldn’t last more than an hour. But what could he do with the distraught Mrs. Lincoln weeping uncontrollably and begging him to save her husband?

The show could use some tightening. Felder is at his best telling of the events after the shot and describing the famous acting dynasty of which assassin John Wilkes Booth was a member. Less fascinating to me were the first 20 minutes about Leale’s childhood.

But stories about Lincoln will always fascinate Americans, and this one is no exception.

The details

“An American Story For Actor And Orchestra” plays through Feb. 3 at Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave. in North Park.

Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday at 2 and Sunday at 3 pm.

Tickets: 619-239-8836 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.