Chicago Theatre Review
Sex in a Stovepipe Hat
Abraham Lincoln Was a Fggt – About Face Theatre
Cal is a teenager passionately pursuing his theory that our 16th President was, for many reasons, not only one of our most beloved leaders; he was also a gay man who, because of who he was and the time during which he lived, was forced to conceal his true nature. Cal relates to this dilemma because he, too, is a gay young man who feels pressured by his peers to keep this information a secret. In spite of having a gay uncle who lives openly with his partner, Cal’s mother ignores the signs that her son is also homosexual. When she finds him kissing Skylor, a gay student Cal is assisting in his run for senior class president, Susan begins to realize that she needs to stop pretending. Both Cal and her brother Geoffrey require her unconditional love and support.
Bixby Elliot’s irreverent, often humorous, always insightful and thought-provoking play, now enjoying its Chicago premier, explores an all-too-familiar story of a young man’s coming to terms with his own sexuality. It cleverly intersperses this journey toward understanding with episodes from the life of Abraham Lincoln. These are based upon both fact and fantasy. The play was inspired by a children’s book purchased at a secondhand store called Meet Abraham Lincoln—A Step Up Book. In it, only the most basic facts about the President are presented, which caused Elliot to reflect on how history tends to gloss over the backstories behind its most famous men and women.
It must be noted that it’s never been conclusively proven that the Great Emancipator enjoyed the sexual company of men. However at least one expert, the late Kinsey psychologist C.A. Tripp, wrote in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln that the rail splitter from Illinois may have had at least two gay relationships during his lifetime. Lincoln’s close friendship with Joshua Speed began in Springfield when the two men shared an apartment and a bed (apparently not an uncommon practice, at that time) above his family’s general store. It was a deep bond that lasted their entire lives. Another intimate male relationship developed after Lincoln became President and was wedded to Mary Todd. Abraham Lincoln and Captain David Derickson, the President’s bodyguard, were inseparable companions and often shared a bed during Mrs. Lincoln’s frequent excursions to New York City. This relationship was reputably the subject of gossip among Washington D.C.
Bixby Elliot taps into these controversial secret rumors about Abraham Lincoln to parallel moments in Cal’s life and to spice up his play about a young, modern teenager trying to find a role model in his search for sexual identity. The play travels between the mid-19th century and the early 21st century with ease. Brian Prather’s simple, flexible scenic design, accented with colorful historic projections by Michael Stanfill, and nicely lit by John Kelly, enable Andrew Volkoff to allow his finely directed production to seamlessly travel back-and-forth through the centuries. Bob Kuhn’s wonderful costumes and wigs further create the illusion of time travel and make it possible for four of his six actors to convincingly play several different roles.
Talented Nathan Hosner, who starred in the National Tour of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” as well as being a familiar face on a number of Chicago area stages, plays both Abraham Lincoln and Geoffrey with skill and empathy. These two share a certain shy, restrained reticence, especially the latter character. Mr. Hosner portrays a man whose emotional pain with not being totally accepted by his sister comes to a head in his relationship with his partner, Buck. There’s also a bitter frustration in Geoffrey’s inability to be a positive role model for his nephew, Cal. Mr. Hosner’s portrait of Lincoln is stalwart and persuasive, while at the same time warm, honest and very human.
Jessie Fisher, whose impressive resume includes playing the leading role in “Once” on Broadway, as well as having appeared in productions all over Chicago, plays both Susan and Mary Todd Lincoln. One character is a confused 21st century single mother who finds difficulty in accepting and supporting her gay son, while the other is a spunky 19th century socialite whose determination to marry the President becomes all-consuming. Cal and Susan’s brother Geoffrey are continually at odds with Susan, while Mary Todd tries to cope with Lincoln’s depression, intimated that its basis stems from the President being sexually frustrated. Ms. Fisher’s ability to swing back and forth between these two challenging characters is admirable. She shows brilliance in both roles.
In three different but similar roles, Derrick Trumbly, another Chicago actor with an impressive resume, is remarkable as Buck, Joshua Speed and Captain Derickson. All three characters share a sexual attraction for Mr. Hosner, but each man is uniquely different. Matt Farabee is likable and convincing as Cal, the sexually confused teenager who becomes obsessed with the sexual orientation of Abraham Lincoln. His journey toward accepting his own situation is nicely played and shows the requisite growth. Lane Flores, so excellent in Mary-Arrchie’s recent production of “Our Bad Magnet,” turns in another fine performance as Skylor. His love and support for Cal parallels Lincoln’s devotion to Speed and Derickson.
But perhaps the most impressive performer in this production is a theatrical chameleon named Dana Black. As Actor 6, Ms. Black is hilarious in multiple supporting roles, from a gay-bashing bully to a lesbian tour guide to an homogenized hotel clerk. Ms. Black’s ability to change from role to role and gender to gender, at a moment’s notice, is sensational. Her dramatic ability and comic timing provide some of this production’s best moments.
This exceptional production, a perfect offering during Gay Pride month, examines one teenager’s search for himself. Cal travels from being an insecure kid to becoming a strong young man, secure in the knowledge that each and every person is a work in progress. Cal learns that labels are arbitrary and meaningless, except to unfairly pigeonhole individuals. He not only comes to terms with his own life style, but learns to understand both his mother and uncle, as well. Through the words of his hero Abraham Lincoln this young man discovers that, like all of us, his quest for understanding is universal.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 5-July 5 by About Face Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.aboutfacetheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.