The relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln, "Mrs. President," first lady of the United States and Elizabeth Keckley, her exclusive seamstress and confidente, is an intriguing one, ripe for a theatrical portrayal that is deeper than the slight one shown in the recent film Lincoln. Tazewell Thompson, well known playwright and director to Washington, D.C. audiences, makes a valiant attempt to bring this relationship to life. The attempt provides a bold representation of the complex Mrs. Lincoln. It is less successful at illuminating what is, for the audience, the lesser known and far more compelling Mrs. Keckley. Mary T. & Lizzy K. is a step in the right direction, but needs more work to make the women as equal on stage as they appear in the title of the show.
This is not a rote biographical sketch. As Mr. Tazewell remarks in the program he was seeking to bring the characters to life "through (his) imagination." This is admirable for it would be tedious to see yet another bio-drama that is simply a highlight parade of the subject's life. Mr. Tazewell sets his scene in a mishmash room, designed by Donald Eastman, one side piled with furniture and trunks, the other stark and uninviting. On these grounds we see the asylum Mrs. Lincoln was committed to by her eldest and only surviving son, Robert Lincoln as well as what appears to be trashed chaos caused by the unexpected eviction of Mrs. Lincoln from the White House following her husband's assassination.
The play, in its one hour and forty minutes, takes us from an audience with the allegedly insane Mrs. Lincoln to Mrs. Lincoln confronting Mrs. Keckley for daring to publish her memoirs. It segues to the height of their professional and personal relationship near the end of Mr. Lincoln's presidency. Using only four characters, it is an intimate portrait, yet ultimately unsatisfying for leaving the audience craving more information about the elusive Mrs. Keckley.
Naomi Jacobson brings hurricanes of emotion as the forceful Mary Todd Lincoln. She dominates the proceedings as Mrs. Lincoln probably dominated anyone who was graced with an audience with the emotional firebrand that Mrs. Lincoln appears to have been in real life. She is charming, irrational, devoted, dismissive and above all, proud and aristocratic. One gets the impression that one would not dare contradict Mrs. President, or insist upon the payment of her bills. Ms. Jacobson is a slight woman, but within that exterior lives a tiger of a personality that overwhelms the rest of the performances. It is not the fault of the actress, but the nature of the play that Mrs. Lincoln is the more outsized personality and therefore takes an outsized portion of the play.
Sameerah Lugmaan-Harris's Mrs. Keckley is much more self-contained. She conveys a quiet dignity in most of her interactions with her famous client. For two-thirds of the play we get so little insight into this woman that she remains as much of a cypher as she does in her token appearance in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. This is a shame for Elizabeth Keckley's life is just as fascinating as that as Mrs. Lincoln. It is not until the last third of the play that her emotional barriers come down and the audience learns of her heartbreaking past and difficult present. She should be a bolder presence throughout the play. This a woman, who out of financial desperation, risked her reputation by breaking the bounds of nineteenth century propriety by publishing Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, a book about not just her life, but her relationship with the first family of the land. This is a woman who bought her own freedom and that of her son, only to see her son die in action as a Union soldier. While these facts are present in the play, they need to be fleshed out more to make the character of Elizabeth Keckley more of an equal to her name in the title of this work.
The fictional dressmaker's assistant, Ivy, portrayed by Joy Jones, is a riveting figure both in appearance and speech. Part of the problem of the play is that this fictional character takes too much of a leading role in the first half of the play. Thomas Adrian Simpson's Abraham Lincoln, is charming and a very human husband, clearly devoted to his wife and devastated by her heightened emotional state. The third supporting character is the costumes, designed by Merrily Murray-Walsh. We as audience receive quite a lesson in Civil War era women's fashion, from the style of hoop skirt to the intricate nature of fitting a handmade gown. That the actresses portraying Mrs. K and Ivy have to do a complete dress fitting on stage is a testament to the challenges of bringing authenticity to the proceedings.
Tazewell Thompson is to be commended for making the relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley the focus of his play. They have been long overdue for examination in any kind of depth. One wishes that Lizzy K did not remain a shadow in the bright supernova that is Mary T. As this is a world premiere one hopes that this will not be the end for this piece, but a well-intentioned beginning.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. is being performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater and has been extended through May 5, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.