Abe Lincoln was an honest man. Whip smart. Unflaggingly courteous. Lazy, shiftless, suicidal…

Wait, what? In Intiman Theatre’s staging of Abe Lincoln in Illinois E. Sherwood’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play—we are treated to a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining character study of our 16th president, a man so burdened by internal struggles, the Civil War looked tame in comparison.

The play chronicles 20 years of Honest Abe’s life, from good-natured, gun-toting 24-year-old bumpkin in New Salem, Illinois, to reluctant leader and newly elected president of the United States. Sure, the lanky Lincoln we all know and love is there, infused with a sweet sincerity by Erik Lochtefeld. But what’s fascinating is watching Lochtefeld’s very convincing performance as a troubled Lincoln: one who is debt-ridden, plagued by inertia and self-doubt, and nearly commits suicide when the young love of his life, bar maid Ann Rutledge (Angela DiMarco), dies. Thankfully, the script is bolstered by levity – even some of the president’s own jokes, discovered by Sherwood, that showcase Lincoln’s occasionally not-so-courteous sense of humor.

A coterie of friends surrounds Lincoln, urging him to realize his destiny; apparently, it takes a village to make a president. Special mention goes to Reginald André Jackson, who plays Ninian Edwards, brother-in-law of Mary Todd and son of the governor of Illinois. Though the decision to cast the African-American actor as a white politician is confusing initially, Jackson plays the role with such dexterity he renders the point moot. Also impressive is R. Hamilton Wright’s eloquent turn as Stephen Douglas; the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate is a highlight of the play, both for its acting and direction.

Lincoln’s adversarial relationship with Mary Todd (Mary Jane Gibson)* is an interesting subplot to the political history unfolding. Costuming by Melanie Taylor Burgess greatly enhances Gibson’s portrayal of an aggressively ambitious, nagging wife; Gibson’s giant hoop skirt seems to enter a room before she does. (See what we’re talking about in the YouTube clip below.)

Whether you’re a history buff or a fan of a good character drama, Abe Lincoln in Illinois won’t disappoint. The show’s run has been extended, with performances on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 7:30.

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