In many ways, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln begs to be dramatized. Not only was he killed in a theatre, but his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was one of the most famous actors of his time. For Tamara Johnson, the most intriguing character in this drama was onstage.
“In Haste, Laura Keene,” a Piccolo Spoleto production that opened on May 30 at the Threshold Repertory Theater, stars Johnson in the title role. Keene, an actress known throughout the United States in the mid-19th century as well as the first successful female theater manager in America, was performing in the role of Florence Trenchard in “Our American Cousin” when Booth shot Lincoln, thus solidifying her place in history.
The year is 1869, and we are welcomed into Keene’s dressing room at the Chestnut Street Theatre. For the next hour, Johnson shares the story of Keene’s career, which climaxes with the murder of Lincoln.
The most exciting aspect of this production is the play-by-play of assassination day. Surprising details litter the dialogue. For example, Lincoln had originally planned on attending the Grover Theatre that evening; Booth had purchased the adjacent box at the Grover Theatre and only learned of Lincoln’s change of plans that morning when he picked up his mail from Ford’s Theatre. For history buffs, these fascinating snippets alone are reason enough to attend.
From her petticoat to her teacup, her British accent to her dainty curtsy, Johnson personifies Laura Keene. Though her wordplay on keene/keen grows a bit tired, her actions and emotive reading reveal a deep-seated vulnerability with which one cannot help but empathize. Her confidence in her skill (“You must learn to act up to me”) makes her sensitivity all the more powerful. This is a woman who has done her research and understands her character from the inside out.
This production tries its best, and succeeds, in transporting the audience to the mid-19th century. The programs feature the original program from the evening Lincoln was shot. Keene reveals that actors at this time removed their make-up with pig fat, and then shows the audience her stash. She describes the injustices she faced as a businesswoman, such as having her sets slashed by jealous contemporaries, with veracity. By the end, one understands the intricacies of early American entertainment without setting foot inside a classroom.
As a whole, “In Haste, Laura Keene” is a fascinating take on a well-known historical event. Its attention to detail, in conjunction with Keene’s powerful performance, make for a memorable, if not infamous, night at the theatre.
Mary Gibble is a Newhouse School graduate student.
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