‘Our Leading Lady’ fuses comedy, drama

The play opens Friday.

Veteran stage performers live by the mantra "the show must go on," even when lines are forgotten, costumes are torn and the set's falling down around them. Of course, there are some exceptions -- like when Abe Lincoln is shot.

“Our Leading Lady,” which begins tonight at Stephens College’s Macklanburg Theater, tells the story behind the actors in the play Abraham Lincoln attended the night he was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Set in April 1865, the show centers on Laura Keene, a famous actress and manager who performed “Our American Cousin” in Washington, D.C. the week the Civil War ended. Although the city buzzes with excitement as the conflict comes to an end, Laura does everything in her power to persuade President Lincoln to attend her performance on the show’s final night. Little do they know, Laura and her fellow actors will become a part of the history.

"Our Leading Lady,” debuted by playwright Charles Busch in 2007, portrays Keene as one of the strong female characters Busch typically includes in his works.

“The show often feels like a 1940s comedy set in the mid-19th century,” director Quin Gresham said. “Act one plays very much like a typical backstage farce. But in act two, the plot takes a much more serious, introspective, socio-political turn. It really is an interesting piece.”

Michelle Wilke, who plays Keene, found that in addition to the difficulties brought on by the complex nature of the show, the time period the show takes place during also creates certain challenges, especially concerning language.

“Language is so important in the show, especially for my character who is an actress,” Wilke said. “She loves her words, and every line she has is elaborate. Not only were they hard to memorize, but the language is not how we talk today.”

Even though the play is largely fictional, Gresham said many elements of the plot hold true to the events of April 14, 1865.

“Laura Keene was the actor-manager performing ‘Our American Cousin’ and, by some reports, did climb into the presidential box to cradle the dying president in her arms,” he said. “The most important fact is that she will always be known, not as a great actor, but as the actor that performed when Lincoln was assassinated.”

Wilke acknowledged that most people only know as much about Lincoln’s assassination as elementary school teachers or history books have taught them. If the audience can relate to and appreciate an event that happened so long ago, it will give the show a deeper meaning, she said.

“Through the research I did for the show, I found out some very interesting facts about how devastating it was for them at the time,” she said. “Quin would say, ‘Imagine 9/11 just happened and you’re worried about how it’s going to affect you.’ (I try) to relate it as much as I can to make my emotions believable so that the audience will believe them.”

Stage manager Katie McKellar said even though the show isn’t modern, it does provide a backstage look at what goes on behind the scenes in theatrical productions.

“It shows the theater in a different light,” McKellar said. “(The audience can) get a glimpse of what it is backstage, and not just the petty jealousies, because that always happens. But there’s true camaraderie that comes out of it as well -- family.”

“Our Leading Lady” plays at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 and 25 and Oct. 1 and 2 and at 2 p.m. Sept. 26. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $6 for students and seniors. They can be reserved at the Stephens College box office by calling (573) 876-7199.

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