'Lincoln Speaks': A house divided against itself cannot stand'

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STOCKBRIDGE — Early in Chesterwood's "Lincoln Speaks" program on Wednesday night, one of Abraham Lincoln's performed works mentions "the Lord." Lincoln undoubtedly knew that including such a reference would appeal to those who believed in a higher power, but what he couldn't have known at that time was that he would have his own devotees exalting him well into the 21st century.

Some of them packed Daniel Chester French's Studio on a beautiful summer evening, expelling Sunday-esque "mmm hmms" and "uh-huhs" as they looked for some guidance from the Great Emancipator's words. Harold Holzer, an esteemed Lincoln scholar, contextualized various private and public Lincoln remarks and writings, a sermon of sorts delivered between readings by five actors and local theater figures: Jayne Atkinson, Michel Gill, Dennis Krausnick, Tina Packer and Chris Tucci.

"You have to get just the right mix of humor and pathos," Holzer said during an ensuing wine-and-cheese reception.

Both were apparent from the start. As a model of the Lincoln Memorial (which French designed) loomed stage right, Holzer guided the readers through various Lincoln quips, many of which focused on his ugliness. Once, when Lincoln was accused of being two-faced during a debate, he responded, "If I had another face, do you think think I'd wear this one?"

Gill read that particular passage. Many know the actor as President Garrett Walker from "House of Cards," a far less inspiring leader than the man Gill celebrated on this night. "I am a big fan," Gill said of Lincoln following the performance. Gill didn't prepare for the event, feeling that adding any "fanfare" to the prose would be a disservice. "[The words] fit in everyone's mouth," he said.

Atkinson, who is married to Gill and plays another political figure (Secretary of State Catherine Durant) in "House of Cards," read a similarly self-deprecating line when Lincoln saw a sculpture of himself. "There is the animal," Lincoln had said.

Unlike Gill, Atkinson also appeared at last year's inaugural Chesterwood "Lincoln Speaks" event, as did Holzer, Krausnick and Tucci. In its second year, the event drew about 100 people to the famous sculptor's estate, according to Chesterwood executive director Donna Hassler. After last year's 80-person sellout, Hassler convinced the staff to temporarily move French's "Andromeda" outside to add some more seating. Aside from the obvious connection between French and Lincoln, an exhibition of Lincoln's writings at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York motivated Hassler to start the program.

"Wow, this would be a great program with people reading out loud," Hassler recalled thinking at the time.

She subsequently contacted Holzer. They initially held a reading of Lincoln's favorite Shakespeare lines at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage in 2014 before moving to French's studio last summer for an event with a much broader subject matter. While Holzer recycled material from last summer's reading, he updated it recently to reflect the current political situation. The scholar said that, regardless of politics, recent presidents have revered Lincoln. "They all get something from him," he said.

Though President Donald Trump has publicly expressed his respect for Lincoln, Holzer doesn't see many parallels between the 16th president and today's commander-in-chief. He felt people needed to remember that a president can be introspective. "It's still pertinent to remind people," he said.

For Atkinson, the present political moment contributed to her decision to join the events even though "it can derail you [as an actor] if you get too political," she said. While Atkinson was distraught when Trump won the election, she believes the country has a chance to redefine its image in the coming years. "We're going to decide what reflection we want," the Great Barrington resident said.

Holzer concluded the program with a potential antidote to today's political polarization, one Lincoln often preached: unity. Toward the end, Gill read lines from Lincoln's first inaugural address, including: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." Eventually, Tucci emphatically stated, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

The event closed with the audience joining the performers in a rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." While last year's performance of the classic tune set a high bar — folk singer Judy Collins made a surprise appearance — this year's humble singalong didn't appear to diminish the audience's enthusiasm.

"Tonight was a thrill," Great Barrington resident Denise Flynn told Holzer afterward.


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