Where were you when …? The question has been reserved for the defining moments of our time, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. History books are filled with the details of large events, but we’re often just as interested in how ordinary people fit into the big picture, no matter how small their roles. Two of those people, at the margins of history, are the subject of “One Destiny,” a historical play that’s ongoing at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
Where were you when …?
The question has been reserved for the defining moments of our time, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
History books are filled with the details of large events, but we’re often just as interested in how ordinary people fit into the big picture, no matter how small their roles.
Two of those people, at the margins of history, are the subject of “One Destiny,” a historical play that’s ongoing at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
“The thing about history, you know, is that sometimes it’s just another day,” Ed MacMurdo says early in the two-man production.
MacMurdo plays Harry Hawk, the actor who was alone on stage when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. Terry Jones plays Harry Ford, one of the brothers who ran Ford’s Theatre.
The 35-minute play is set a few days after the assassination, and has Hawk and Ford recount the events of April 14, 1865.
They talk about Booth’s mysterious presence at the theater earlier in the day; the coincidence that he was present when a White House messenger came by to announce Lincoln’s plan to attend the show that evening.
The central question of the play is whether Lincoln’s destiny — and that of Hawk and Ford — could have been changed.
“We could’ve closed — it was Good Friday, after all. Nobody would’ve cared,” Ford says.
And could Hawk have stopped Booth as the assassin limped upstage to escape? Booth was wounded in his jump from Lincoln’s box but armed with a knife.
After the performance, which took place last week on a weekday afternoon, MacMurdo and Jones took questions from the audience. The first questioner asked about the authenticity of the dialogue in the play.
That’s when Phil Funkenbusch, director of the shows division at the museum, went to a microphone next to the stage and told the unsuspecting audience that the playwright was in attendance.
There was an audible “ooh” that broke into applause as Richard Hellesen walked to the stage from his seat in the back of the auditorium.
“As old as I look, these are in fact not overheard conversations,” Hellesen quipped. “But I did a great deal of research to reconstruct the material in such a way that what is said reflects what the men were thinking at the time.”
Revealing too much of what Hellesen said would spoil some of the surprises and revelations in the show. But he did say that while there was evidence to support much of the dialogue, some of it was invented.
Hellesen said that, after the interrupted production of “Our American Cousin,” Ford’s Theatre did not reopen as an entertainment venue for more than a century.
“Ford actually, I think the following July, he wanted to open it for a July Fourth celebration, and they got death threats,” Hellesen said. It was purchased and used by the government until several floors collapsed in the early 1900s, prompting a seemingly permanent closure of the site.
But in 1968, the building was renovated and reopened as both a museum and a working theater.
It was Ford’s Theatre that commissioned Hellesen to write the play, and where he found the title “One Destiny.”
The theater has the large Brooks Brothers coat Lincoln wore to see “Our American Cousin” that night, with bloodstains still visible on the collar. But it was what was stitched into the lining of the coat that really caught Hellesen’s attention: a large eagle with a banner that read, “One Country, One Destiny.”
“The idea of destiny jumped out at me, because then the play on that — if something is destined, could it be stopped?” Hellesen asked. “In that sense, these guys try to relive the course of the day and think, ‘Was there any point where if I had just said this or done that, could I have stopped this crime?’”
It was a way to view history through the eyes of “the common person, not the great person.”
It’s been four score since we might reasonably have expected to meet people who could say where they were when they heard Lincoln had been assassinated.
But with Hellesen’s play, we can at least look around the margins.
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When: 1:30 p.m. Friday and Tuesday. The play continues through June and July; check the events calendar at sj-r.com for additional dates.
Where: Union Theatre, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, 212 N. Sixth St.
Tickets: Included with regular museum admission: $10 adults; $7 seniors, students and active military; $4 children 5-15; under 5 free. Tickets are distributed outside the Union Theatre two hours before each performance.