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Wednesday, May 27, 2009 08:37 pm

The new play at the Presidential Museum

One Destiny takes place at Ford’s Theatre, a week after Lincoln died

Actors Terry Jones, left, and Ed MacMurdo and playwright Richard Hellesen, right, flank a lifelike model of assassin John Wilkes Booth at the Abraham Lincoln Museum.

Two actors. No set.

Multiple characters, none of whom can be the killer or victim. Wrap it up in no more than 45 minutes. Audience? Everybody age 7 to 70 and beyond.

Those were a few of the constraints placed on California playwright and theater educator Richard Hellesen when Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., commissioned a one-act play he would come to title One Destiny.

The play is being performed several times weekly this summer through the fall at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.

“They wanted a theatrical production about the Lincoln assassination to show visitors several times a day, to reinforce the fact that Ford’s is a working theater, not just a museum,” Hellesen said of the decision by the U.S. Park Service to forgo the typical tourists’ tours conducted by friendly park rangers in brown trooper hats.

The playwright was in Springfield May 12 checking out the local Lincoln sites during an impromptu jaunt from Independence, Kan., where he was doing a residency at a theater festival.

While here, Hellesen took in the 30th performance of One Destiny in Union Theatre at the museum.

According to the museum’s show department director Phil Funkenbusch, One Destiny opened locally in February to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The play premiered at Ford’s Theatre in February 2007, where it is still performed, although it is on hiatus during the summer. “So the only place to see the show this summer is here in Springfield.”

Hellesen’s play is free with the price of museum admission, one of several theatrical performances currently offered to visitors. Because the play is not performed every day, Funkenbusch encouraged people to call the museum for times and dates.

“The script is so intricate and really brilliant, that the big challenge for us all was how to clearly stage the flashbacks quickly, and for the actors to play several different characters in a short period of time,” said Funkenbusch. “It was actually fun to work on finding ways to make it all work.”

In the play, Hellesen uses a trunk of costumes to maneuver around some of the more confining elements of his agreement with Ford’s.

“What does every actor have? A trunk of costumes,” Hellesen said. “That trunk allowed me to navigate back and forward in time, with two actors grabbing different costumes while playing different roles throughout the performance.”

One Destiny takes place on an afternoon a week after Lincoln died, on stage at the shuttered Ford’s Theatre, which would not reopen for 100 years.

The actors portray primary protagonists Harry Ford, one of the brothers who owned the now-iconic Ford’s Theatre, and Harry Hawks, an actor who mid-performance had an abrupt face-to-face with assassin John Wilkes Booth as he leaped from the presidential box to the stage. They also become a variety of other characters as the story develops, offering a glimpse into the real-life people who worked at Ford’s Theatre that fatal Good Friday in April 1865.

Funkenbusch said he’d initially hoped to have a second cast performing the play for the summer, but budget constraints might put that plan on hold.

The two protagonists — earnestly portrayed by Springfield thespians Ed MacMurdo as Hawks and Terry Jones as Ford — are haunted by a gnawing guilt that they shouldhave done something, anything, to stop the chain of events that culminated in the murder of Lincoln. But can a regular person change another’s destiny?

“That’s the question isn’t it?” said Hellesen during the regular post-performance Q&A between the actors and the audience. “Think of the regular people who got out of bed and went to work on 9/11. They had no idea they were stepping into the spotlight of history.”

Laying blame for the assassination is not what One Destiny is about.

“When you are in the act of living history, how could you have known? It’s only clear in retrospect,” Hellesen said. “Average people who find themselves in the middle of historical tragedy can’t be blamed, because they didn’t know. There is no way you could control that.

“I think at the end of the day,” Hellesen added, “it’s not how you got to this point, but how you go on from here.”

Hellesen called Ford’s Theatre his primary source while researching the play. He had complete after-hours access to spend time alone, wherever he wanted to go, inside the theater. He sat in the back of the theater and watched visitors come and go, and explored the wings.

He was even allowed into the theater box where Lincoln was shot.

The playwright pondered Ford’s Theatre’s place in American history.

“On one hand, it’s the most famous crime scene in America, so why do we venerate this place? When people walk into Ford’s, everybody’s attention goes,” Hellesen said, then made a whooshing sound and soaring motion with one hand, palm down, “all the attention goes right up there to that box. Why? Well, this is the place that Lincoln left this world, here and in a bed across the street.”

As for Lincoln’s place in the nation’s pantheon of leaders, Hellesen said the man from Illinois is “the president we love.”

“I was talking to some friends in London, who said they thought our national hero must be George Washington. And I said no, we respect George Washington, we admire him, but we love Lincoln, really love him,” Hellesen said. “We might meet Washington and bow to him, but if we met Lincoln, we’d want to sit down and listen to him tell a story, pull up a chair and tell some jokes.”

Rick Wade is a freelance writer whose new passion is Illinois history. He is a Decatur native who’s worked for both religious and secular newspapers in Illinois and Colorado for almost 30 years. A graduate of Sangamon State University (UIS) in Springfield, Wade lives in Pekin with his wife and their two no-kill shelter graduate dogs.

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