There are some things money can’t buy; for everything else there’s the White House credit card. Mary Todd Lincoln had no qualms about spending major First Lady funds on clothing. But her disinterest in cost — in the value of the labor that goes into building those gloves, skirts and dresses she so compulsively collected — weighed heavily on her in-house modiste and confidante Elizabeth “Lizzy” Keckly. Lizzy, born a slave and made free woman by her own investment, knew how crucial the cost of property can be.
The two ladies rely on each other in complicated ways through the course of writer/director Tazewell Thompson’s engaging Mary T. & Lizzy K, the world-premiere kickoff to Arena Stage’s American President’s Project. Mary and Lizzy share secrets. They quarrel. They teach each other. And they survive, with much difficulty, the assassination of a president and the unraveling of a first lady’s good senses.
The script is thoughtful and well-structured. The acting is astute. And if the show glides over as many intriguing themes and ideas as it ends up latching onto, it’s hard to fault anyone for breezing through. The tumultuous un-making of the Civil War, and the vortex of changing (and unchanging) ideas about race and humanity in this period, make for such fascinating study that many stones inevitably remain unturned.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. finds its confident, kinetic groove by honing in on two settings: the White House in 1865 on the eve of Abe’s murder at Ford’s Theatre, and the Illinois mental asylum into which Mary is committed, by her son Robert, in 1875 (she lived until 1882, seventeen years past her husband). For a fast hour and a half the play speeds, at times rather manically, back and forth between these two spaces.
We meet Mary in the cold dark asylum, and moments later we catapult back with her to that final good evening, minutes before heading to the theatre with her president husband (Thomas Adrian Simpson), when neither man nor wife quite knew how much every second together mattered.
In framing the story as a memory play in this way, Thompson allows our troubled Mary to become freely unstuck in time, and we are right alongside her as she attempts to piece together the trauma of her unreliably-remembered life. Numerous historians have suggested that Mary’s mood swings and frequent, sudden outpourings of anger were likely rooted in bipolar disorder, and Mary T. & Lizzy K. finds numerous means, in design and in script, to manifest her depression and dislocation.
The conceit is perfectly compelling, although I suspect a fair portion of the audience will come to the conclusion that Mary, played by the stalwart Naomi Jacobson, is the least interesting character of the four. Jacobson brings a reassuring humor and rambunctiousness to her somewhat thankless role as the self-involved, tirelessly spiteful Mary.
But Thompson’s vision of Abraham Lincoln, who appears for roughly half the show, is such a salve to Mary’s harsh tones that we fall in love with him immediately. Simpson, finding an honest intimacy in a man all too larger-than-life, practically steals the show with a believable big-heartedness and a dollop of aw-shucks charisma.
Lizzy, played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, has far less patience for Mary. Stern, plainspoken, and self-reliant, Lizzy is a major foil to her first lady’s temperament, and Luqmaan-Harris is wonderful at teasing out the line between the freedwoman’s public and private conscience. She speaks brusquely to her Jamaican assistant Ivy (Joy Jones), and only reluctantly to Mary while fitting her for a dress — an activity that takes up much of the first half of the show. Lizzy is a proud, uncompromising professional, assured in her work but resentful, we sense, of Mary’s emotional reliance on her. She is also, like Mary, a headstrong mother and an independent thinker, and it is this overlap that will keep their two lives fused together through the troubles to come.
Mary T. and Lizzy K.
Closes May 5, 2013
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $85- $100;
$50 standing room only
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The design team does attractive work, most notably costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh. For Lizzy, the dresses are a livelihood; for Mary they are more like full-body security blankets. So both women are addled when, over time and for varying reasons, they begin to lose hold of the clothes that make them who they are. The eerie limbo into which both women drop at play’s end — Mary stranded in the asylum and Lizzy pushing to defend her 1886 memoir “Behind The Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” — casts a haunting light on these moments in history.
Mary never lost her passion for fighting injustice and saving the Union, but when she avows to Lizzy, in a moment of rage, that “you are nothing more to me than the hoop under my skirt,” it’s hard to believe life is about to get much better anytime soon. Mary, it turns out, is not the only client of Lizzy’s that has decided not to pay up for services rendered. We realize now the ongoing crime committed against Elizabeth Keckly — that of fundamental disinterest — and so we study the sad dressmaker as she watches an old friend learn, all too late, what money can’t buy.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. . Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson . Featuring Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln and Joy Jones as Ivy. Set Designer: Donald Eastman . Costume Designer: Merrily Murray Walsh . Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel . Sound Design & Composition: Fabian Obispo . Stage Manager: Scott Pomerico and Production Assistant: Kristen Harris. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.
Diane Holcomb Wilshere . AccidentalThespian
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
Lindsey Clark . Pamela’s Punch
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Shannon Davies . TheaterMania
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Xandra Weaver . ShowBizRadio
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Mark Dewey . DCMetroTheaterArts
Diane Holcomb Wilshere . AccidentalThespian