"Our American Cousin" - a review

Last night my wife and I attended a performance of the comedy play “Our American Cousin”. With the war winding down and the Easter season upon us, we had plenty of reason to celebrate and a light hearted play seemed in order. The evening started well with a quick dinner before the play. We were greeted at the theater by several soldiers newly returned from war and hopefully on their way home soon after mustering out.

To prelude the play, a band played a selection of wonderful music including tunes such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” and many others.

The play was a comedy melodrama set in England and was about an American who had inherited a fortune from a rich uncle and had arrived to claim his estate. The play includes comical characters, love interests and even a shady lawyer who was attempting to steal the estate.

Unfortunately, the light night out turned to tragedy as the 16th President of the United States was shot in the head. A dastardly man who I later learned was John Wilkes Booth had snuck up to the president’s box and in a cowardly act, shot the president from behind. He then had the gall to limp across the stage and shout “Sic semper tyrannus” and our dying president.

As you might have guessed, we attended a performance of the play that Lincoln had been watching the night he was assassinated. It was held in the Union Mission Theater in Pekin, IL., an old theater with wooden floors and seats built in 1895. It wasn’t QUITE old enough to be Lincoln era, but it was close enough to give the effect. Even the presidential box in the balcony seemed realistic.

The play was cast well and included people who looked the parts. The play had many jokes and comical situations, most of which were still funny and understandable to a modern audience like a chubby girl who was “too delicate” to eat when her suitor was around, and English people who believed that all Americans hunt buffalo (even in Vermont).

Mr. Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln looked very much like the originals, though I’d guess Abe to have been a few inches shorter than the real Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth was recognizable as he entered the theater late and eased his way up the stairs to the balcony. There were many people in the audience in civil war era dress to help make the event seem authentic.

After the “assassination”, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln took the stage and gave short talk and Mr. Lincoln took questions from the audience. One question was about what advise he had for current Illinois politicians. His answer was pretty good. He expressed that he had heard one Blago prosecutor say that Lincoln would be spinning his grave. He said that although Lincoln was always a reformer and fought corruption, it had been a rampant problem even in Lincoln’s time. That the current corruption scandal was unfortunately “not an original sin”.

A highlight to the evening was the band’s playing of the tune “Honor to Our Soldiers” which was to have debuted at Ford’s theater the night Lincoln was shot, but for obvious reasons didn’t get played that night.

One thing that struck me is that by all reports, Lincoln seemed truly happy that day, maybe for the first time in his life and definitely for the first time in many years. A terrible war was winding down with a Union victory. Although there were tough times expected ahead, everything looked to be getting better. He had finally become content with life just before he was struck down.

If any similar re-enactment of the play is being held near you, I highly recommend attending. This show was well worth the time.