LINCOLN'S CHICAGO ADDRESS

ACTOR MICHAEL KREBS IS A PERFECT FIT AS THE 16TH PRESIDENT
By William Mullen. Tribune Staff Writer.
Photos by Nuccio DiNuzzo. Tribune Photographer.
Monday, October 20,1997
http://www.chicago.tribune.com/print/tempo/9710/20/tempo/9710200108.html


More than it does most people, physical appearance limits actors--and sometimes blesses them--in the choice of jobs they can go looking for.

Michael KrebsWhen the casting call went out for the part of Han Solo in "Star Wars, you can bet nobody had a Danny DeVito type in mind. On the other hand, a Harrison Ford breed of actor probably was never considered for the role of the Penguin in "Batman," either.

Since 1990, Michael Krebs, at 6 feet, 4 inches and a skinny-as-a-rail 180 pounds, has passionately and single-mindedly worked to find a way to make a living playing the one character he always seemed fated to play because of his physical stature.

Abraham Lincoln.

He has done everything from Shakespeare to Neil Simon, but after years of journeyman jobs as a professional actor and theater coach in community and regional productions, he moved to Chicago to pursue his dream.

It has been a struggle for the 41 -year-old actor, but right now things are looking up.

On Oct. 9, he starred in the opening of the first full theatrical run of "Visiting the Lincolns." It is an affecting and effective character study that began as a vague idea he first kicked around in college. Now a highly polished one-act play, it runs until Nov. 9 at the Performance Loft, 656 W. Barry Ave.

The comedy/drama has Lincoln, his wife, Mary, and a harried bodyguard hosting an afternoon White House reception a few hours before the president is assassinated. By turns jocular, peevish and sorrowful, the actors at times play off members of the audience, who passively take the role of reception guests in the intimate, 75-seat theater.

As Lincoln, Krebs calls upon skills well honed by two decades of theatrical experience to shade in a nuanced performance that makes his striking physical presence all the more exceptional.

His height, weight and angular frame are pretty much identical to the 16th president's. His thick, dark hair and high forehead are just about right too.

Without a beard, Krebs is a good deal better-looking than Lincoln, who often joked about his own ugliness. But when Krebs grows a beard sans mustache, as was the popular male fashion in mid-19th Century America, a startling transformation takes place. His whiskers grow in and lay across the topography of his face in almost the identical way they did on Lincoln's visage.

"People have been teasing Mike about being 'Lincolnesque' since he was a 15-year-old high school kid in Freeport," says playwright James Clark, 43.

"When we were both theater majors at Western Illinois (University), I used to talk about writing a Lincoln play someday. He used to talk about being my Lincoln, but I kidded him that he'd have to get more ugly before he could have the part."

Michael KrebsThat was 20 years ago, and their paths separated after college.

In 1990, Krebs came to Chicago from Rockford, where he had been a resident actor with the New American Theater for several years. He knew Clark had been here for many years working as a theater carpenter, technical director and lighting specialist, writing plays on the side.

"I thought we'd stumble across each other here soon enough," Krebs says, "and I planned to remind him of our ideas about a Lincoln play that we kicked around in college. I thought I was ready, and if I didn't do something with it pretty soon, I was going to end up having to get a job and give up the country club life of acting."

Clark and Krebs soon did run into each other, and Clark says Krebs didn't have to say a word.

"You're older and uglier now," he says he jokingly told Krebs, "so it's time to do that show."

The two men spent months reading and researching. Krebs worked at creating an authentic persona, studying Kentucky accents to find cadences and speech patterns Lincoln likely would have used.

While helping Clark tinker with the play, Krebs grew his beard and found fairly steady work as a Lincoln portrayer that has taken him all over Illinois and into Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

He spent a year doing presentations two days a week for the Chicago Historical Society during a special exhibition of Lincoln's handwritten manuscripts and other personal effects. He took part in the re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg, broadcast nationally on C-SPAN. Building up a bank of Lincoln oratory appropriate for various occasions, he still hires out regularly for educational, civic and corporate events.

But Clark's play was always the end game in Krebs' Lincoln quest.

"We first focused on the fact that Lincoln was a remarkable storyteller, a talent he developed early and practiced endlessly as a lawyer," says Clark. "He was great at telling jokes."

Initially they tried a one-man Lincoln show. Krebs concluded Lincoln couldn't come alive standing alone, however. He is as much myth as a historical figure, and needs to be placed against other people to give human scale to the complexities of his personality: the melancholic- the humorist- the consummate, calculating politician and leader- the loving husband- the doting, deeply grieving father.

"I asked Mike if he could come up with a script with Mary Todd Lincoln in it, because sometimes you can better tell what somebody was like when you show them with those they love the most.

"Mary was a fascinating person, adoring and difficult, somebody who often influenced Lincoln to do the things he did. She was high-born, high-strung and well-educated, very aware of her status. She was a coquette who loved to flirt. When she chose to marry Lincoln over many other suitors chasing her, people were shocked, but she knew what she wanted."

The current production is a version finished about three years ago and refined through occasional one-night stands and short-run stagings around the Midwest.

Michael KrebsAbout 70 percent of what Lincoln says in the play is from real life, culled from documents and speeches. Because virtually nothing survives of anything Mary said in her lifetime, her dialogue is made up, her persona created from bits and pieces found in memoirs of family friends and Lincoln White House employees.

"A lot of the people in the White House couldn't stand her," says Debra Ann Miller, 33, the veteran local stage actress who plays Mary. "She suffered from radical mood swings. She had been through so much. She had lost two of her little boys to horrible deaths.

"There were vicious rumors all over Washington about her and her loyalties because she came from the South. Four of her brothers were lost in the war, fighting for the South, and of course she couldn't go to their burials or even publicly grieve for them. She lived in constant fear of her husband being killed."

Her portrayal of Mary is as a fussy, funny, bossy, deeply loving wife. But not far below the surface is a human being teetering and bravely struggling not to slip over the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Mary palpably and vividly animates the terribly real stresses and strains Lincoln suffered. Her presence allows Krebs, whose portrayal always treats Lincoln's character with affectionate, gentle respect, to get the late president to step off the pedestal people naturally place him on.

Consequently, Lincoln's fondness and talent for humor, sometimes folksy, sometimes biting, begins to feel like a self-medicating antidote to his own attacks of melancholia. His brooding explanations for the brutal decisions he was forced to make in war have real pain and despair behind them.

Clark ended up writing a third character into the script, William Crook, one of Lincoln's actual bodyguards. Crook, played by Clark in the current production, is a handy foil for the other two and a liaison on behalf of the audience, able to explain away some of the Lincolns' behavior in brief intervals when neither is on stage.

"The germ of the show," Clark says, "is the Lincolns being caught by surprise when visitors arrive for a reception that was erroneously left off their schedule of White House events."

It is a sunny Good Friday holiday, just a few days after the war had ended, and Lincoln is in better spirits than he has been in years. Excited about going to Ford's Theater that night, a favorite form of relaxation for them, the Lincolns are having trouble finding another couple to accompany them.

With most of the White House staff off for the afternoon, the Lincolns come upon the guests (the audience) in a reception room. Mary, a noted slave to fashion, takes keen, somewhat saucy interest in the 20th Century apparel of the guests/audience. She and Lincoln gamely begin entertaining the assembled folk, bantering and bickering with each other as they go along.

"In fact, there is no record of Lincoln's activities for much of that afternoon, " says Clark, "so I had the opportunity to create a little fiction.

It is a fiction both he and Krebs say they think goes far in showing their mythologized subject as a human being in flesh and spirit. They say they are hoping the play's month-long run will lead to more bookings elsewhere.

"Being stared at in restaurants or hooted at when I'm riding my bicycle," Krebs says, "but I'm not shaving my beard off soon. The play already has a couple of dates down the road, and I have a lot of Lincoln appearances booked in the future. Right now, things are working out well."

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