Mariya Maragos-Chase, Sam Shabel and Nathaniel Chase are part of the cast of Joe Chase's "Lincoln for the Defense." 
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Mariya Maragos-Chase, Sam Shabel and Nathaniel Chase are part of the cast of Joe Chase's "Lincoln for the Defense." GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS

Honestly, he’s staging the whole Abe.

“Abraham Lincoln has fascinated me for as long as I can remember,” stated Chatfield resident Joe Chase. “I first visited Gettysburg in the summer of 1964, but I hadn’t considered writing a play about Lincoln until a day five years ago when I was describing the ‘almanac trial’ to my friend, Judge Debra Jacobson. ‘Sounds like a good story for a play,’ she said, and I agreed.”

Several years of research followed, Chase explained and he made trips to Springfield, Ill., to visit Lincoln’s law office and home, and to Beardstown, Ill., to see the courtroom where the case was tried 160 years ago this spring.

He highlighted, “And so, this month, Wits’ End Theatre (WET) will premiere my new play based on a true story. Entitled ‘Abraham Lincoln for the Defense,’ it tells a tale with all the makings of a great drama.”

Chase explained that a man had been attacked and killed in the dark of night. A widow’s young son is accused of the murder. A jury trial will decide whether the boy hangs. The most remarkable part is that Abraham Lincoln defends the young man at trial, making a fascinating story.

Playwright Chase is very familiar with the workings of the courtroom, as the Chatfield native has been, for the past 18 years, a Minnesota district court judge serving at the Olmsted County courthouse in Rochester.

WET also produced Chase’s first play, a Civil War piece entitled “The Last Boy in Blue,” in 2012.

“That show told the story of Fillmore County soldiers at Fort Ridgely on the Minnesota frontier during the 1862 Dakota War. My new play depicts another subject, but this time, it’s in an Illinois courtroom in 1858, before Lincoln became America’s greatest president,” Chase said.

Lincoln was a trial lawyer who practiced in the county courthouses of central Illinois, and Hannah Armstrong knew Lincoln from his early days in New Salem. When Hannah’s son, Duff, was charged with the August 1857 murder of Pres Metzker, she asked Lincoln to defend the boy because Lincoln had tried hundreds of cases in his long legal career.

“The defense of Duff Armstrong — in what would become known to history as ‘the almanac trial’ — was one of his last and most important trials,” Chase stated.

The director pointed out that 1857 into 1858 had proven to be a pivotal time in Lincoln’s life.

“The threat that slavery would expand into the new Kansas and Nebraska territories had brought him out of political retirement — really, his political career had been over, but with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, there was a chance that slavery could be expanded,” Chase explained.

Lincoln was about to run against Stephen Douglas for the United States Senate — the race that would feature the famous

“Lincoln-Douglas Debates.” That contest would propel Lincoln to national prominence, and two years later, the White House and the fiery crucible of the Civil War.

“These were times and people that would reshape America’s destiny,” Chase continued. “But in the meantime, in the spring of 1858, he was still a practicing trial lawyer riding Illinois’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, and his friend’s son would go to the gallows if convicted of murder.”

He posited, “What does it take to produce a courtroom drama, complete with judge, clerks, bailiffs, sheriff, witnesses, attorneys and, of course, a defendant? Actors. Lots of actors.”

“Abraham Lincoln for the Defense” will feature a cast of 27 talented performers from southeastern Minnesota. They range in age from14 to 73.

“Some have long experience on stage — one has appeared at the Guthrie in Minneapolis,” Chase said. “For others, this will be their first play. No less than a dozen of these cast members are themselves practicing trial lawyers. For them, Lincoln is a personal hero who, for 25 years, made his family’s living just as they do, representing clients before judges and juries in county courtrooms.”

Chase observed that as one of the nation’s most revered presidents, Lincoln’s character must be carefully portrayed. “You can’t take liberties with Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “Of course, there have been movies of vampires and zombies with Abraham Lincoln, and those take it to the extreme to be entertaining, but I don’t do that — I tried to adhere his character as closely to what we know he did, what we infer that he did based on his correspondence. I had to invent whole conversations for the others, of course, because there was no way to record them.”

A young man with a striking resemblance to a younger Abraham Lincoln returns to the WET stage, accompanied by Nathaniel Chase — the duo has portrayed Lincoln and Lincoln’s law partner, Billy Herndon, at WET’s Short Play Festival for the past two years.

“Playing Abraham Lincoln is Sam Shabel, a Third Judicial District public defender based in Rochester,” Chase explained. “Sam is from Alabama, so mastering Lincoln’s Kentucky drawl presents him no difficulty. Sam and Nathaniel have been developing their approach to these roles, and now they look forward to bringing the complete 24-scene show to the big Potter Auditorium stage — those scenes they played in the short play festival were part of the larger play that we’re presenting now.”

Mariya Maragos-Chase, who plays Hannah Armstrong, is well known to Rochester audiences for her delightful portrayal of the title character in Rochester Civic Theatre’s 2016 production of “Mary Poppins.” Chatfield audiences saw Maragos-Chase play the title role in “Cinderella” in 2015 and “Ariel” in 2016’s “The Little Mermaid.”

As Hannah Armstrong, she asks her old friend, Abraham Lincoln, to defend her son. Convinced that her son has been wrongly accused, but advised that his case is hopeless, she goes to see Mr. Lincoln. Hannah’s desperate faith that Lincoln can somehow save the boy’s life is absolute.

Chase outlined, “Matching wits with Lincoln in the courtroom was State’s Attorney Hugh Fullerton, played here by Jim Haase. Fullerton was a veteran of the Mexican war and a formidable prosecutor. Playing him is no stretch for Mr. Haase, who is a Marine Corps veteran, and as a senior assistant Olmsted County attorney, a real-life prosecutor. Jim has played leading roles in Rochester Civic Theatre productions of ‘Damn Yankees’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’”

Chase added that Mary Lincoln will be played by Rochester native and Third Judicial District public defender Catherine Hanson. With this role, Catherine returns to the stage for the first time since playing the title role in “Oliver!” at Lourdes High School. Hanson portrays Mary as the politically astute manager of the Lincoln household who is capable of disarming, Southern-belle charm, but who always tells her husband exactly what she thinks.

He continued, “Isaiah Redalen is a Chatfield High School student who has done great work in roles in ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Austin Bartsch made his Wits’ End Theatre debut in last summer’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Hayden Clark and Jake Cain are newcomers to the Potter Auditorium stage, and we are delighted to have them be in this cast.”

“Abraham Lincoln for the Defense” is an educational yet entertaining venture into courtroom history,

Chase cited. “I think people will learn some things about Abraham Lincoln, and it’s better to be introduced to him because it’s a different Abraham Lincoln than we read about in the history books. I get to show Lincoln off as a lawyer…he was a great trial lawyer.”

It is also interesting for the attorneys and everyone who’s in the courtroom who are in the play to imagine what his life must’ve been like, Chase added.  

“My favorite parts have to be the courtroom scenes. They’ve involved a lot of people, and I like staging the scenes in the courtroom proceedings…how Lincoln handled himself, the character witnesses…it’s very rewarding working with the actors portraying the folks in the courtroom scenes,” Chase said. “It’s very rewarding working with this wonderful cast of people. I think this will be an entertaining courtroom drama, as the murder case Lincoln was involved in was for probably one of the most prominent families and the most prominent case. It’s a very compelling, entertaining true story.”

Chase posed a rhetorical question, “Why a play about Abraham Lincoln now? It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking story, one that’s relatively little known, about Lincoln before he was the president, emancipator and martyr we all recognize. We know Abraham Lincoln as a president, war leader and emancipator, but he asked Americans to be ‘guided by the better angels of our nature.’ At this moment in the life of our country, we need all the Lincoln we can get.”

Chase and company will present “Abraham Lincoln for the Defense” on what Chase called “one of Minnesota’s truly great stages, at the magnificently-renovated Potter Auditorium in Chatfield.” The auditorium is located within the Chatfield Center for the Arts, 405 S. Main Street, Chatfield. The play will be produced on Feb. 23 and 24 and March 2 and 3. The two-hour show includes an intermission.

“This ambitious production is presented by Wits’ End Theatre — the Chatfield-based community theatre group that is the resident company of the Chatfield Center for the Arts,” Chase concluded.

Tickets are $15. Further information is on the WET website at www.witsendtheatre.org.