February 11, 2011

STRANGERS: Michael Krebs & Debra Ann Miller
LOCATION: Phillips Seafood, 900 Water Street SW, Washington, DC
THEME: An evening with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln impersonators

Four score and seven days ago I had dinner with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

All right, there are several lies embedded in that opening sentence. It was dinner with Michael Krebs and Debra Ann Miller, two actors that impersonate — or “present” — President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd. And I’m not old enough to have had dinner with the duo more than 80 years ago. Besides, the real Lincolns were long dead by the time the 1930s rolled around. But I know you, dear reader, will forgive my dishonesty.

Michael and Debra both live in Chicago, but they were in Washington, DC, to perform for the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia, a historical society dedicated to studying the 16th President. The duo have a 60-minute educational show that they take to schools, museums, and elsewhere, called “Visiting The Lincolns.” The audience is treated as if they’re spending an afternoon in the White House while the Lincolns unwind before a trip to Ford’s Theatre that night.

Yes, that Ford’s Theatre and that night.

The duo very kindly agreed to have dinner with me the evening before their Saturday night performance for the Lincoln Group, to be held in the opulent surroundings of the Officer’s Club at Fort McNair, a still-active U.S. Army base within Washington, DC.

Our dinner environ was the somewhat less opulent Phillips Seafood, a buffet-style restaurant that as a non-driver I discovered is quite a long walk from any public transportation. Still, the walk to the place was probably good for the gut I’ve inevitably developed going out to dinner with a bunch of strangers.

As I walked inside I spotted Michael straight away. It’s hard not to. At a lanky 6 foot 4 inches he’d be an imposing figure no matter what the circumstance. He was wearing regular clothes, but with a thick Lincoln beard on his face and a side-parting mirroring the president’s locks, the resemblance to Abe is impossible to miss.

The duo share an instant likability and made me feel welcome within seconds. This was only the second dinner interview where I was outnumbered, but it was the dinner at which I’ve felt the most at ease to date. It seems like they’re both always smiling, and from the second I sat down with them they treated me with the informality and openness of an old friend.

I can probably thank Michael’s and Debra’s history in theater for that, because as performers they have a natural confidence and outgoing nature that shines through. By the way, I know my British mum reads this site so I have to apologize to her quickly for using the American spelling of “theater” in this article.

Michael, 54, and Debra are both originally from Illinois. Although Lincoln wasn’t born in the Prairie State, he spent a good chunk of his life in Illinois and “there’s a greater love for this man in Illinois than anywhere,” Michael said. So it was that growing up in school Michael learned a lot about the president and “had a great respect for him.”

But that great respect didn’t necessarily translate into a desire to impersonate, or present, Lincoln. Instead Michael had a desire to act and perform, and went to college to get a theater degree. “I was so poor I had to stay in Illinois for a state scholarship,” he said.

Getting to Western Illinois University at 18 was a “turning point” in his life because it freed him from life in the small town where he grew up, he said. Within two years of graduating, at age 24, he found work with a professional theater in Chicago where he’d stay for 10 years.

Debra also grew up in Illinois but went to college in Michigan. After graduating she spent a year in Cincinnati, Ohio, working for a theater group. Then she moved to Chicago and from there she spent about three or four years on the road as a touring actress. One thing she’s always been interested in is “educational theater,” so the Mary Todd Lincoln role-playing fits the bill perfectly.

But Debra wasn’t Michael’s first Mary Todd.

Debra started working with Michael in the late 1990s, but he’s been presenting as the president since 1994.

But how did he get into it? Did he wake up one morning with a five o’clock shadow, see his reflection, and think, “Aha! I look like Lincoln!”?

Not quite. Michael said he didn’t grow up noticing any resemblance.

“I got into it for the simple reason of survival

The Lincoln life started when Michael was 38 and at the end of his 10-year run with his theater. He was cast in a recreation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, famous talkfests between then-Senate Republican candidate Lincoln and his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas. “I got into it for the simple reason of survival,” Michael said, treating the event like any other job.

I’m sure his height and similar appearance to Lincoln probably helped swing him the role. Regardless, the recreation aired on C-SPAN and won praise from President Clinton. The momentum from that pushed Michael into focusing on being a full-time Honest Abe.

“I was given credit for pumping some life into it” at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Michael said, even if he looked young to be portraying the president. Working off the good feedback from that performance he started developing ideas for continuing in the role of Lincoln, teaming up with playwright James Clark — a friend from college — to craft a play about the man.

The play, “Visiting The Lincolns,” originally featured the two Lincolns, their son Tad, and William Henry Crook, a White House guard. Family commitments meant that one of the actors had to leave, winnowing the show down to three roles, and then another actor left, which led to the current two person piece that Michael and Debra perform.

“It’s a moment in time,” Debra said of the play, which takes place on the afternoon of Lincoln’s death. “There are three hours that afternoon when we have no idea what the Lincolns did. The playwright used that opportunity to say that during that time the audience are uninvited guests at the White House,” a set-up that allows the Lincolns to talk directly to the audience.

“It’s a great premise. One of the questions in theater is how do you get to the audience as quick as possible? The quickest way to do that is to ask them, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ It’s instantaneous,” Michael said, above a low growl in the restaurant.

That growl was my stomach, and so off we headed to the sprawling buffet at Phillips. The food options are overwhelming, with numerous tables serving up meats, vegetables, pasta, soups, fish, and anything else you could possibly imagine.

I loaded up my plate with mashed potato, thinking I’d go for some slices of beef. Then I spotted a sausage-and-chicken gumbo and some allegedly Cajun pasta, and my love of New Orleans and its food kicked in. Hence the horrific mess on my plate.

Still, it tasted delicious. The gumbo was spicy but not mouth-burning, the meat cut in generous chunks. The pasta was perfect and the mashed potatoes a rather unconventional side that, despite the overload of stodge on the plate, made the whole dish moreish.

Michael piled his plate high with various seafood offerings, and seemed to enjoy his dinner. The conversation was flowing so freely at this point that dinner was almost an afterthought.

The lone vegetarian at the table, Debra, loaded up on vegetables. I feel a little bad for taking a vegetarian to a seafood restaurant but unfortunately some areas of Washington are sorely lacking a decent selection of dining venues, and we wanted to keep things local to their hotel.

As we made our way through the self-served generous portions, I asked Debra how she got involved with the play. Her answer was simple. “I auditioned.”

The first actress to play Mary Todd Lincoln left, busy bringing up three teenage girls. So Michael was scouting around for a replacement, and eventually settled on Debra, who describes herself as a “bit of history geek” who always had an interest in theater that educates. “It was a perfect fit,” she said.

Debra’s history background “was my big draw to her,” Michael said.

Does Debra resemble Mrs. Lincoln physically? She’s the same height, but Mary Todd had four children so was a little more, well, rotund than the slim Debra. The duo say it helps that nobody except the scholars really know what Abraham’s wife looked like, because it means the focus during the play is on the person rather than a caricature.

“If I tried to find someone who looked like Mary Todd, I’d probably have someone who looked a lot like her but can’t act,” Michael added.

“Our lives are hopelessly intertwined

Debra also brought with her a skill in making costumes, and her outfit for Mary Todd is self-made. Michael in contrast went to a Chicago tailor to have his Lincoln overcoat made. The tailor came over from Poland during World War II and has his own rich life story, Michael said. He underbid all the other tailors for the job making the coat. “He wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” Michael said. When he went into the tailor’s office he understood why — the place was adorned with pictures of Abraham Lincoln. “I was lucky to get him,” Michael said.

So with costume and script in hand, the duo travel Illinois and sometimes out of state with their play, though Abe’s adopted home state remains the biggest market for the show, run by Michael’s company With Lincoln Productions. “Some grade and elementary schools wouldn’t even think of going through a school year without bringing in this program,” Michael said.

Outside of Illinois they’ve traveled to Florida, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and a number of other locations performing for educational events, corporate events, and other occasions, such as the Lincoln Group event that brought them to Washington, DC.

Does it get difficult spending all that time on the road together?

Not at all, they both said. They both come from strong theater backgrounds and apparently share the same “skewed” version of the world that means they get on well together. That’s a good thing because “our lives are hopelessly intertwined,” Debra said.

And no, in case you were wondering, Michael and Debra are not married. Debra has a husband, though she’s been “married” to Mr. Lincoln for longer. “There are times of the year when she probably sees more of me than her husband,” Michael said.

One reason people assume the couple are married is because they ably present the Lincolns as any other married couple with in-jokes, light bickering, and affection. Michael and Debra were kind enough to invite me to the Lincoln Group performance the next night at Fort McNair, and I can vouch for their acting capabilities and ability to entertain.

Sidenote: Fort McNair is still an active army base, so I was made to get out the car taking me to the show while it got a full search by armed soldiers. Interesting way to start a Saturday night.

The play is a fun way to spend an hour. Michael and Debra disappear into their roles, commanding the audience’s attention from the moment they enter the room. I was a bit wary of being subjected to 60 minutes of edutainment, but was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and informative I found the play. I learned a fair amount about the Lincolns and the play hits some good high points with laughs and tears in a seamless presentation. Michael and Debra also ably portray a married couple that likes to tease each other but are also still deeply in love.

“The number one question we get these days is, ‘Are you two married?’ People assume we are because we fight like any married couple. But those fights are on stage,” Michael said.

“Everyone can identify with Lincoln

The Lincolns bickered and that was part of their relationship, Debra added. Mary Todd came from a very political family but grew up in an age when women couldn’t freely speak their mind. “So really her only source of intellectual stimulation was her husband. To have had such a formidable adversary as Abraham Lincoln must have been an oasis in a Sahara of boredom,” she said.

Do either of the actors miss the conventional stage?

Not so much, and for Debra she particularly does not yearn for the stress of auditions, which she likened to root canal surgery. Their theatrical backgrounds came up repeatedly during dinner as conversation would veer off-topic and into such things as what they see as a decline in high quality, experimental theater, the likes of which they haven’t seen since the early 1990s.

One reason they don’t appear to miss regular theater work is its heavy focus on commercial, big-budget productions. But Michael warned that this comes at the expense of the smaller, avant-garde theaters. “People are going to pop their money on the big, sure seller rather than the experimental thing. But kids have to see the avant-garde, they have to see people pushing the envelope,” he said.

Does the Lincoln play give them a chance to push their type of theater?

The play “is not necessarily avant-garde and it doesn’t push the envelope, but it is a challenge in that no matter what we do, it has to be true,” Debra said. “True in the historic context and true as far as being genuine on stage. We put ourselves through it every time we do it. It’s never more gratifying than when we break through” to an audience.

For example, Debra recalled a time when they were performing the play in front of schoolchildren. During a moment in the play Mary Todd reflects on the death of her son, and apologizes to the audience for getting emotional. Apparently one of the fourth grade boys told her it was all right to be upset. “That’s when I realized we reached somebody. He said it was okay that I was crying. Moments like that are so gratifying. That’s when you know what we did was true,” Debra said.

Making that kind of connection is something “every actor aspires to, to break down the fourth wall, to talk to them. So much of theater’s about one-way direction,” Michael added.

The show often involves a question-and-answer period, so Michael and Debra make sure they’re informed about the Lincolns. Debra said she’s overloaded on books about the Lincolns, and Michael said his research into the president “has only gained and gained over the years.”

One of the things Michael said he’s found is that there appears to be a much bigger attraction from people to Lincoln rather than George Washington, the first president.

That might be because Washington appears to many people to be an aloof figure whereas “every experience played out in Lincoln’s life has a common thread that someone can identify with, be it the loss of a child, or coming out of poverty, you can find empathy for him. It’s hard to find empathy with Washington, who had slave quarters,” Michael said.

“Now I’m at ease with being Lincoln

Are there any downsides to being Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln?

Michael said that when he first started presenting as the president at the age of 38 he was probably too young for it. “People kept saying, ‘You certainly are the young Mr. Lincoln.’ I don’t hear that anymore. I guess I’m there. Now I’m at ease with it.”

He’s also at ease with getting recognized on his travels, telling the story of one time at New York’s LaGuardia airport when he arrived for a sold-out flight. The check-in clerk told him to go to the gate to see if there was a seat. On his way to the gate he heard over the airport speakers, “Abraham Lincoln, please report to the gate.” As he made his way over, people kept their eyes out and their excitement grew when they saw the Abe lookalike walk up to the gate. He got a seat on the flight.

“When I first started doing this I was very self-conscious” about people seeing the Lincoln look. “Now, if it doesn’t happen, I wonder what I’m doing wrong,” Michael said.

Still, he’d love the chance to shave his beard. “Oh god yes,” he said when I asked if he wished he could take the razor to that big bush on his chin.

“The advantage I have is that once I take my Mary Todd wig off, nobody knows who I am,” Debra added. Michael doesn’t get to enjoy such anonymity.

During dinner, I must have told Michael three or four times that I thought he really looked like Mr. Lincoln, but if he was irritated it didn’t show. He and Debra are incredibly gracious people, warm personalities, quick with a joke and attentive to others.

It’s a truism that you can measure a person by the way they treat waiters, and on this account and during dinner Michael and Debra also showed their personalities — outgoing, considerate, funny, warm and friendly.

It makes one hope that the real Lincolns were this decent.

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