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Theater review: 'Better Angels' at the Colony Theatre

October 29, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Better angels.300 Based on a little-known historical incident, Wayne Peter Liebman’s “Better Angels,” now in its West Coast premiere at the Colony, is a scrupulously researched and respectful drama that appropriately honors the Lincoln bicentennial.  As far as vibrant new theater goes, however, the play is a tad rusty.

   In Victoria Profitt’s strangely rudimentary scenic design, a backdrop of vari-colored mountains' majesty sets off Lincoln’s sparsely furnished White House office. Seen at the height of his war presidency, a beleaguered Lincoln (James Read) receives a visit from Cordelia Harvey (McKerrin Kelly), the recently widowed wife of Wisconsin’s governor, who petitions Lincoln to approve a Northern hospital for the war wounded.  Seen in both 1909 and 1863, Lincoln’s loyal amanuensis and later biographer, John Hay (David Dean Bottrell), serves as on-the-spot observer and retrospective narrator of the ongoing discussion between the president and Mrs. Harvey, a charged dialectic underscored by an unspoken romantic frisson.

   The actors are all winning, particularly Read, whose fittingly folksy Lincoln has just the right touch of poignant cerebrality. But director Dan Bonnell too often mistakes stiffness for period reserve, and despite Liebman’s almost religious observance of actual historical records, anachronisms do creep in.  The scholarly Hay’s line, “It is not me you need to convince,” is particularly wince-worthy, and Lincoln’s failure to rise when Mrs. Harvey enters the room seems rudeness that no gentleman of the era would have countenanced, even in pique. 

However, a final scene, in which Mrs. Harvey silently peruses Lincoln’s just-penned Gettysburg Address, is a moving moment that tugs our tears and leaves us with renewed appreciation for the sad, doomed man who preserved the Union.  In stark contrast with what has come before, the moment offers a glimpse of dramatic opportunities left unrealized.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

Photo: James Read and McKerrin Kelly. Credit: Michael Lamont

“Better Angels,” Colony Theatre

, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank.  8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.  Also 8 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19, and 3 p.m. Oct. 31 and Nov. 7. (No 8 p.m. performance Oct. 31.)  $37-$42.  (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.