02/18/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
Every night for the past three weeks, the audience at a tiny theater on 10th Street N.W. in Washington has left a little shaken, as if it had seen a ghost—and so, in a way, it has. This week, as the nation marks the 171st birthday of Abraham Lincoln, he is back at Ford's Theatre for the first time since his assassination there 115 years ago. The day after Lincoln was shot, the theater was closed, and since its restoration and reopening in 1968, Ford's director, Frankie Hewitt, has turned down no fewer than 34 plays about Lincoln. Her mind was changed this time by a script from Lincoln scholar and New York Times columnist Herbert Mitgang—and by the actor Mitgang has entrusted with his one-man show, Roy Dotrice.
A former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC actor (Charles Dickens) and a British citizen, Dotrice, 54, admits his knowledge of Lincoln when the project began was "minuscule—I knew he abolished slavery and was assassinated, and that's about all." Yet what he accomplishes in Mister Lincoln is a verisimilitude that borders on resurrection, eerily capturing his subject's humor, compassion and notorious melancholia. For six months Dotrice immersed himself in Lincoln's writings, in period photographs and in recordings of Illinois and Kentucky accents ("the most difficult part," he admits).
The effort has proved worthwhile. This week's birthday performance will be taped for a TV special (for Time-Life Television), the play moves to Broadway the end of this month and Dotrice is almost patriotically committed to seeing that it goes on from there. "I think Americans at this time need to be reminded that they are a great nation that has produced great leaders," he says. "I could happily spend the next five years propagating the virtues of Abe Lincoln."