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Thursday, July 1, 2004 10:58 pm

The return of a favorite to New Salem

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Opening this weekend at Theatre in the Park, New Salem's outdoor amphitheater, is the drama Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln.

The return of the John Ahart play, which ran for many summers at New Salem, has been a long time coming. Ahart gave producers Pat and Kari Anderson and Dave and Shelly Flickinger the rights to produce his award-winning drama; former cast member Karl Bockemeier directs. For Bockemeier, who played the role of Lincoln, restaging the play that was once an annual summer tradition is obviously a labor of love. The show has not been seen here in eight years.

I recently spoke by phone with Ahart, who was at his home in California, about the early days of the play and the seeds from which it germinated. It all began while he was teaching theater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"I'd written a play called Head of State, about the American presidency," he recalls. "The production played the Kennedy Center during the American College Theatre Festival, and the day after opening night was the day [John] Ehrlichman and [H.R.] Haldemann resigned in the middle of the Watergate crisis. The play was well-received, and there was talk of our remounting it."

Instead, the experience from that play gave birth to the idea of writing a drama about Lincoln's life, and Ahart spent the next three years working on it. Everything came together for the premiere during the summer of the Bicentennial. The original company, made up of Ahart's theater students, included playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) and Chicago's Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls.

The first season, Ahart and his company of actors worked to develop the show, which spans Lincoln's life. "It was a true collaboration with the actors," he says. "We would discuss the themes of his life, then we would work on staging those themes, editing, changing, trying out new things in rehearsal."

After the first season, Ahart rewrote the play and that version is the one that thousands of tourists saw over the summers until its final showing during the summer of 1993.

Ahart's company, the Great American People Show, had been promised a $200,000 grant for the production that first season, but the grant fell through at the last minute. They spent the next eight years getting out of debt.

(Ahart wrote another play that premiered at New Salem, titled Mr. Lincoln and the Fourth of July. With any luck, that play will also be performed on the outdoor-theater stage again, accompanying the continual return of Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln. The Ken Bradbury/Robert Crowe musical Abraham!, a hit musical for New Salem these past years, is not playing this summer.)

The New Salem ensemble includes Greg Bergschneider, Don Schneider, Dennis Rendleman, Jim Yale, John Woodruff, Bob Te Ronde, Jacob House, Andy West, Mac Warren, Julie Summers, Becky Brown, Joyce Te Ronde, and Kerry Hahn.

Ahart plans to return to Illinois to see the play and will be in New Salem for the July 3 performance.

Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln plays at 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday, July 2-4, and Thursday-Sunday, July 8-11. Tickets for all reserved seats are $9 for adults, $5 for children under 12. Tickets may be purchased online at www.theatreinthepark.net or by calling 632-5440 or 800-710-9290.

Ed MacMurdo loves the old MGM musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and it's been a dream of his to direct the stage production at the Springfield Municipal Opera. I'd be interested in learning about more of his dreams, because this Seven Brides is exactly what summer theater is all about. Beautifully produced and performed, it's one of the nicest, light and breezy shows I've seen in a long, long time.

The 1954 film is remembered mostly for the exciting dance numbers. Springfield Ballet Company artistic director Julie Guttas is really the star of this show, and she has choreographed the musical numbers with a stylish blend of ballet, folk dance, and thrilling athletics. Her dancers obviously have a great time performing her steps. In fact, MacMurdo and scenic designer Scott Richardson have created not only an entertaining piece of theater but an artistic triumph in many ways as well. They've taken what was good about the film and what is possible onstage and turned the show into a great Muni evening.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers plays at 8:30 p.m. through Saturday, July 3. For ticket information, call 793-MUNI.

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