Playwright, actor and composer Hershey Felder, renowned for his productions illustrating the lives of the world’s great composers like George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein, again tells the tale of a historic figure of note in his latest production, “An American Story for Actor and Orch-estra,” debuting at the Birch North Park Theatre on Jan. 4. This time, however, Felder tells the tale from the perspective of Dr. Charles Leale, an ordinary young man thrust into the throes of a historic moment during President Abraham Lincoln’s final hour at Ford’s Theater.
Leale — just 23 years old on that day — was the first medic on scene the night America’s 16th president was shot, and Leale found himself as the president’s lead caretaker throughout the fatal ordeal.
“I was extremely touched by the story of an average young man who suddenly found himself at the center of history with quite literally the weight of an entire presidency — and perhaps the weight of the entire free world — on his shoulders,” said Felder. “Just thinking about what he did and how he handled himself with such grace, never calling attention to his actions, but instead spending the rest of his life doing as much as he could for others, and still questioning if he did enough.”
The initial focus of Felder’s original production, “Lincoln: An American Story,” which debuted in Pasadena last year, was to bring Lincoln to life on stage through the eyes of this unknown army surgeon.
“What I discovered through the process and through the live performance of the work was that the man we wanted to know about was the man telling us the story,” he said. “He wasn’t just a conduit anymore; he was the one to whom this story happened. And because he is one of us, his story became a valuable one.”
While living in La Jolla, Felder re-created the production and its musical scores with a shift in focus to one he says is more organic and layered with inherent truths, not one that is clouded by big ideas and conceits that distract from the richness of the story itself.
“A piece of theater must live and breathe on its own terms,” he said. “After all these years — some 17 — on stage creating new productions and characters and then playing them for a total of more than 4,000 performances, there is something I learned and accepted some time ago: there are no shortcuts. The methodology and process may go a little faster because I know what not to do, but finding what to do, then doing [it] is a never-ending quest and one that I hope to spend the rest of my life engaged in.”
In his latest rendition, Felder not only dreamt up dazzling musical scores and creative new avenues for the production from his La Jolla home, he also selected his entire production team from right here in San Diego.
“Over the years, performing at the Old Globe, I’ve come to love San Diego and the public that attends,” he said. “Without question, San Diego has some of the finest theater artists in the world, and also some of the nicest individuals to work with. The San Diego theater community is still one that really loves the theater. There is still excitement about new productions. There is still excitement with regard to discovery and there is an extremely high level of craft.”
What he hopes his San Diego audience will discover through his production long after the curtain falls is that great people walk among us — sometimes unnoticed — every day.
“There are great people among us, some that we don’t know or recognize, and ultimately, all of us have that capacity,” he said.
“An American Story for Actor and Orchestra” will premiere at the Birch North Park Theatre on Jan. 4 and runs through Feb. 3. The production is performed as a solo stage show with Felder as its lead accompanied by his own musical scores performed by a live orchestra. To purchase tickets, visit www.birchnorthparktheatre.net or call (619) 239-8836.