Review: ‘Heritage’ engaging history at HPU

Apr. 9, 2014 | 0 Comments
Jim Tharp narrates the stories of Ann Rutledge (Rachelle Gesselman), left, Nancy Hanks (Beth E. Barry), Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (Rasa Fournier), Mary Todd Lincoln (Melinda Maltby) and Lucy Hanks (Hailey Farah) in "Heritage" at Hawaii Pacific University. Photo courtesy HPU

Jim Tharp narrates the stories of Ann Rutledge (Rachelle Gesselman), left, Nancy Hanks Lincoln (Beth E. Barry), Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (Rasa Fournier), Mary Todd Lincoln (Melinda Maltby) and Lucy Hanks (Hailey Farah) in “Heritage” at Hawaii Pacific University. (Courtesy Hawai’i Pacific University)

REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

There’s no doubt about it, Abraham Lincoln is an American icon: “Honest Abe.” The man who saved the Union and freed the slaves. The guy on the penny and the $5 bill.

It’s no surprise, then, that Lincoln’s life has inspired endless study and speculation. Playwright P.J. Barry looks at Lincoln from an unusual perspective with “Heritage,” an ensemble production that focuses on five women who helped shape his life and make him the man he came to be.

‘HERITAGE’

Presented by Hawaii Pacific University

» Where: Hawaii Pacific University, 45-045 Kamehameha Highway
» When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Apr. 27
» Cost: $20 general admission (discounts available)
» Info: (808) 375-1282 or hpu.edu/theatre

Hawai’i Pacific University Director of Theatre Joyce Maltby, herself a Lincoln fan, presents Barry’s look at early American history in engaging style. Five talented actors give uniformly vivid and engaging performances in the major roles.

HPU student Hailey Farah plays Lincoln’s maternal grandmother, Lucy Hanks, who got pregnant at a time when “fornication” was a criminal offense but went on to rebuild her life. Beth E. Barry is Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who was raised by her aunt and uncle in an effort to mitigate the stigma of being “illegitimate.” MidWeek columnist Rasa Fournier is Lincoln’s step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, a warm and loving woman who encouraged his interest in self-education and his desire to become something more than a struggling backwoods farmer.

HPU student Rachelle Gesselman is adorable as Ann Rutledge, the woman who may have been Lincoln’s one true love. Melinda Maltby, director Maltby’s daughter, gives a commanding portrayal of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a complex and outspoken woman who ranks with Hilary Rodham Clinton as one of the most controversial First Ladies in American history.

HPU student Joel McClure is a strong presence as Lincoln’s hard-working, hard-luck father, Thomas Lincoln, a man too busy trying to make a living to have any time for book-learning. McClure, Samuel Filbeck and S. Rick Crump  join the female cast members in playing an assortment of secondary characters.

Hawaii stage veteran Jim Tharp gives the show an important measure of gravity as the narrator. Pictures of Lincoln and members of his family, and other people and places that are significant to the story, are projected on a screen at the back of the stage. They also help put things in context.

Many things in Lincoln’s life are matters of conjecture, and so there is a certain amount of bickering between various characters about which version of history is correct. The genealogy of Lincoln’s mother is a matter of debate among historians. The depth of his relationship with Rutledge is also a matter of speculation.

The characters and their experiences are uniformly interesting. Intermission arrives before you know it. The second act moves with similar speed. Lincoln meets Ann and loses her, marries Mary almost in spite of himself, leads the Union through the Civil War and departs for that fateful performance of “Our American Cousin” in seemingly no time at all.

Projection designer Lanaly Cabalo’s choice of illustrations fills in much of the who, what, and where of the story. Lengthy folk dance segments also give a sense of early 19th century American culture but stretch the running time of the show. The characters are more interesting than the dancing.

In addition to being the story of Lincoln and his family, “Heritage” reminds us of the hardships that Americans accepted as normal two centuries ago, and the importance family can have in the success or failure of children that are described these days as “at risk.”
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John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at jberger@staradvertiser.com.

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