VISITING THE LINCOLNS, Stage Actors Ensemble of Chicago, at the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, Performance Loft. This 80-minute one-act offers a charming, convincing conceit: it seems the audience has arrived unexpectedly at the White House to visit with President and Mrs. Lincoln. It's Good Friday 1865, and before our hosts depart for a certain fateful theatrical engagement, they entertain us with lemonade and cookies while security agent William Crook (playwright-director James Clark) keeps watch with a baleful eye.
The Lincolns are wonderfully depicted by Michael Krebs (an awesome double, down to the mole on his cheek) and Debra Ann Miller, who's alternately genteel and hysterical as Mary Todd. Though Lincoln regales us with jokes about incompetent lawyers and generals and shares his complex opinions on secession and slavery, it's the president's domestic life that emerges most forcefully. Mired in a "purgatory" of a marriage, Lincoln ruefully accepts Mary's teasing and taunting. Both are haunted by the deaths of their two sons, but Lincoln bears the deeper wound of the Civil War's uncounted dead.
Beautifully produced--the theater resembles a funereal Victorian parlor--Visiting the Lincolns astutely balances good humor with the bleak imminence of a terrible crime. Krebs's prairie accent and attacks of melancholy, Miller's neurasthenia and dithering, and the period-perfect script and set ensure that all disbelief remains suspended. --Lawrence Bommer