By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Three years past the bicentennial of his birth, Abraham Lincoln is still going strong. Lincoln-related books appear regularly — there are an estimated 16,000 of them already — and this year, there are two new films: Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated “Lincoln” and the Tim Burton-produced opus, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” There’s even a “Thinkin’ about Lincoln” rap song.
But there are hardly any theater pieces about our 16th president, who was assassinated in a theater in 1865.
Hershey Felder is filling that gap. A Canadian actor/pianist/playwright/composer best known for his one-man shows playing keyboard luminaries like Gershwin, Bernstein, Beethoven and Chopin, Felder is stepping away from the piano to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. “An American Story” will run for a month at the Birch North Park Theatre, starting Jan. 4.
Set in New York City in 1932, “An American Story” is narrated by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, who as a young army medic in 1865 happened to be seated near the president’s box in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot and ended up attending to him during his final hours. A live orchestra backs Leale’s narration.
Felder, who based his play on the words of Leale and Lincoln and his score on the songs of Stephen Foster, starts with Leale at age 90, going back in time to that fateful evening. He couldn’t save Lincoln — nobody could — but he stayed by his side.
“It’s a great story, an important story about what it means to be American,” Felder said. “What touched me is what Leale said about that, in his own words.”
Felder discovered Leale on the Internet, while researching another subject for a possible play.
“God bless the Internet,” he said. “I was on the Library of Congress website, and found Leale’s speech, written at age 67, about what happened when he was 23. He only told the story once, and once I read it, I was hooked.”
Leale is the first non-famous person Felder has played, and the first one he truly likes.
“All the others had to show their wares,” he said. “Leale was a quiet man, a really good guy, and there’s something to be said for that. He went on to create a hospital, he treated patients largely free of charge, and everything he did, he did quietly, never wanting to call attention to himself. My father is like that.”
Billed as a world premiere, this is actually the second version of Felder’s life-of-Leale, death-of-Lincoln story. The first, at the Pasadena Playhouse last spring, has been expanded, with the character’s age advanced to 90, so he could show more perspective on the event that shaped his life, and American history.
Felder is also the show’s producer, backed by a production team of San Diegans, who were on board in Pasadena, and will tour with the show from here on. All are connected with The Old Globe Theatre, where several of Felder’s solo shows were staged.
“They’re great people and close friends,” he said. “Doing the show with them, it’s like summer camp every day.”
For this production, he has rented a house in La Jolla, where he can hold meetings and do some composing. He also has a home in Point Loma, along with homes in New York and Paris, all of which he shares with his wife, a former prime minister of Canada.
“I’ve been all over the world,” he said. “But what I like best is returning here.”
At the beautifully restored Birch North Park Theatre, he will be able to recreate the look of Ford’s Theatre, where he played Gershwin, almost a decade ago.
2013 should be a busy year for Felder, who will be directing plays in Boston and Chicago and taking “An American Story” on the road. Catch him here, close to home, while you have the chance.
If You Go -
What: ‘An American Story for Actor and Orchestra’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 4-Feb. 3
Where: Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave.
Tickets: $58. Check Goldstar online for discounts
Box Office: (619) 239-8836