Second-guessing Lincoln's assassination

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

What could have been done to thwart President Lincoln's assassination in Ford's Theatre? Richard Hellesen tackles that question in his award-winning one-act play "One Destiny" starring Stephen F. Schmidt as Harry Ford and Michael Bunce as actor Harry Hawk.

Ford was one of the brothers who owned theaters up and down the East Coast, none more successful than the one in Washington. Hawk was the leading man in the show on that fateful night, the only person onstage when John Wilkes Booth jumped down from the balcony after shooting the president. Hellesen examines the accounts of these main characters and remarks from several other bystanders. The first of these was Harry Ford.

"As this show opens, the audience sees a theatrical steamer trunk on the stage and an actor pulling out a script." Schmidt said. "He begins reciting lines from 'Our American Cousin,' the play presented that evening. The theater was shut down immediately after the attack. When we meet Harry Ford, he is upset. This was the Ford brothers' flagship theater and he feared it would never be the same after that. The District of Columbia was the center of the Union. Lincoln loved the theater and people attended because they knew there was a good chance of seeing him there. On that day, April 14, 1865, he and Mrs. Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were there."

Onstage
'One Destiny'
» Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW
» When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 6:45 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday through July 6
» Info: $7:50 in advance, $5.00 day of performance; 800-982-2787; fordstheatre.org

"Harry Hawk, the leading man in the show that night, was on the stage when Booth leaped down from the balcony and was the only one who could have stopped him," Bunce said. "Like Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War who said he didn't see the assassination and then changed his story, Hawk didn't want to be involved. Stephen and I go over the day portraying six other people who were there, including the house manager, a stagehand, the doorkeeper, another actor in the play, and an Army surgeon who was in the audience. Hawk starts out trying to convince Ford the assassination could not have been suspected."

"The upshot is that we discover the plot was meant to play out as it did," Schmidt said. "Something could have happened to change the events, but at the end, once Booth got to the theater that morning, he was able to plan every move. He had performed there often and knew everything about the place. This is a great script. It gives lots of information and delivers empathy about how people in Washington might have felt. During our Q. and A. afterward, we get wonderful questions from all ages."

People attending "One Destiny" are also interested in what happened to others present on that day. Although Hawk was afraid it would destroy his career, he continued to act for many decades, crisscrossing this country and the Atlantic. He died on the Isle of Jersey, England, in 1916 at the age of 77. Laura Keene, the actress featured in "Our American Cousin," was not so fortunate. She was born Mary Frances Moss in Winchester, England, and married a man named John Taylor, who later was convicted of a crime and sent to a penal colony in Australia. She began supporting their two daughters by acting. At one point, she may have been involved with the actor Edwin Booth, brother of John. Mystery surrounds how she managed to get her belongings from the theater after the attack because it had been sealed and closed by order of the secretary of war. In fact, nearly all the actors, stage hands and musicians were arrested and questioned. But not Laura. When she was detained in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 17, she was on her way to her next engagement in Cincinnati, not to Canada as authorities feared. Although she eventually resumed her career, she never regained her prominence in the theater. She died just eight years after President Lincoln's assassination.

"This play is part of an adventure that begins when visitors buy a ticket to tour Ford's Theatre," Bunce said. "It's good for a day, so they also can visit the museum and see this show. It's especially interesting to us to find young folks and even older tourists who have never been to a play. This one is historical, well written, family oriented and appeals to all ages. It keeps the audience's attention and gets them so involved you can hear a pin drop."

Schmidt and Bunce have played these roles hundreds of times. Both are regulars at Ford's, appearing in a variety shows, including the annual productions of "A Christmas Carol" and "1776."

"Some people come to 'One Destiny' wondering why they need to know history," said Schmidt, who comes to the show directly from Ford's production of "Hello, Dolly!" "But once they're acquainted with the Civil War and events going on in the United States at that time, I can see the light bulbs going on."

Bunce concurred. "I want our audience to understand how this national tragedy affected people at that time. It's on a par with 9/11 and the recent tornado. By learning about history through this play, the assassination of President Lincoln becomes much more real to them."

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Author:

Emily Cary

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner