DECATUR – When watching Michael Krebs and Debra Miller portray Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, it's easy to get lost in time.
“For a while, I kind of forgot we're in the 21st century,” said Karsyn Andricks, an eighth-grader at Central A&M Middle School, where “The Lincolns” stopped in for a visit on Monday.
Krebs has portrayed the 16th president for years, and began his traveling show with none other than DeAnn Heck, Central A&M's superintendent, as Mary Todd Lincoln. Heck was teaching speech and drama in Galesburg at the time, and met Krebs through a mutual friend.
“I took the advice of veteran (performers) around who said, ‘You'd better find your niche to survive in this business,’” Krebs said. “I moved to Chicago and was lucky enough to hook up with a playwright I'd known years earlier, and we started to do an outline and decided on a four-character show, that turned into a three-character show, that turned into a two-character show.”
Krebs has the height and build to make a convincing Abe Lincoln, and has also portrayed the president on TV, in a documentary and two feature films (“Field of Lost Shoes” in 2015 and “Timeless” in 2016). His Internet Movie Database entry lists his trademark as “Abraham Lincoln impersonation,” so it seems he has found his niche.
“It beats digging ditches,” Krebs quipped.
Heck took a sabbatical from teaching to play Mary Todd Lincoln for a while. She said she's always been a big fan of Mary Todd and has an extensive library devoted to her. But the show became too much for Heck and her family when her own children reached middle school, so she bowed out. That's when Krebs went looking for a new Mary Todd and found Miller. Both he and Miller have degrees in theater and perform the show full time.
Miller has always been interested in educational theater, and “Visiting the Lincolns” suited her perfectly, she said. She made her own dress, hoop skirt and all, and joked about the sleepless hours devoted to the task.
“I read the script and I woke (the playwright) up the next morning and said, ‘Yes, I want to audition for this,’” Miller said.
During the show, Krebs and Miller bicker as Abe and Mary, especially when they're talking about the Civil War. That was one thing that eighth-grader Jayne Danery liked about them.
“I also really liked all his stories,” she said.
As Abe, Krebs has a story for almost any occasion, and tells the audience that he believes a good story is the best way to make a point.
The eighth grade students have been studying the Civil War, which is part of the reason for inviting the show to visit Central A&M. In addition to the high school, the "Lincolns” visited Bond Elementary School and the middle school. At each show, Krebs pulled students out of the audience, exclaiming that they looked like friends of his, while Miller, fanning herself, remarked upon the current fashions.
Toward the end of the performance, Krebs talked about the politics and the deep political and social divisions in the country during Lincoln's lifetime. Quoting from Lincoln's most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address, he encouraged students to remain hopeful about America's future.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For more information about the performers and the show, see www.abrahamlincolnperformance.com .