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Director's Cuts: Gene Mackey On 'Starring Abe Lincoln'

Julie Denesha

Theatre for Young Americahonors President's Day with the play Starring Abe Lincoln, written and directed by the company's co-founder Gene Mackey. The show is a biographical portrait of the 16th president told by the man himself, who happened to be attending another play the night in question.

Director Gene Mackey talked about the production as part of our monthly series, Director's Cuts.

Gene, your approach to Abraham Lincoln is a bit unorthodox. Because you wrote the play as well, how did you come up with the idea to freeze Our American Cousin, the play he was seeing the night he was shot?

"I was always kind of put off by the fact that Abraham Lincoln met his untimely end in a theater, a place I love and a place I think he loved. And I was so dismayed by that I visited Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. It’s a sad place. You know it cast a pall over that theater for years and years. I thought, what would Lincoln think about all this? And you know at the moment of death, people are said to sometimes envision their entire lives passing before them and I thought, Wow, maybe he would envision himself on that stage alive talking about his own life – enacting his own life perhaps – instead of just ending there in that box in which he was shot."

But you cover Lincoln’s life from a child, I would imagine.

"Yes, when he comes down on stage and stops the action, he has at his disposal the company of esteemed actors who were performing the play. The characters within the play are real people, real historical characters as well, and well-known actors of the time. They are all admirers of Lincoln and present themselves as available to help him tell his life story, so they start from his birth, and carry him all the way up to the point where it is a time to die."

Well, Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t doing theater in Kansas City, so I have to ask: How do you cast an Abe Lincoln?

"You look for someone tall and skinny, that’s the first thing. Kevin Fewell is playing the part right now. He has worked on and written plays that are historical as well so he has an intense interest in Lincoln, and he looks like him. He’s lanky, tall, much more handsome than Lincoln was, but he can ugly up a little bit."

Because you’re the author as well as the director, how do you maintain objectivity? I wonder if there’s someone assigned to do that, to keep you in check, because you’re directing your own work?  

"Absolutely. You know Valerie (Mackey), my daughter, is the artistic director and she is very outspoken and very insightful into our work, our artistic work, and she particularly knows the work I’ve done, and she’s directed so many of the plays and worked with the theater for decades now. So I get a lot of feedback from her. My wife Sheryl (Bryant) is also a student of history and is particularly interested in this play. But I’m my own worst critic about plays, especially about something I wrote so many years ago. I can read it and say, 'Ew, I can do better than that.' I’ve rewritten it for the third time, this time cleaning things up, making things, I hope, a little bit better." 

Gene, what kind of directorial choices do you make you wouldn’t otherwise because of the age of your audience?

"Well, that’s a great question. I direct adult plays as well as plays for young people and I find myself doing about the same thing: keeping the energy level up; always having something that maintains interest. You’re not allowed to let anything lag or get particularly slow or dull."

When you and your wife, Sheryl, started Theatre for Young America in 1974, could you have imagined it would still be around 40 years later? 

"Absolutely not. It’s a precarious business, the theater. And keeping something going requires enormous commitment. I think we keep going simply because everybody wants us to and we want to. It’s an act of will that keeps a theater going, in almost all cases."

'Starring Abe Lincoln,' Theatrefor Young America, February 3-14, Union Station's City Stage Theatre, 20 W. Pershing Road, Kansas City, Mo., 816-460-2083.

The “In This Scene...” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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