In 2009, Ford’s Theatre celebrated President Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial and the completed renovation of its theatre with the premiere of The Heavens Are Hung in Black, a riveting tale of Lincoln written by James Still and directed by Stephen Rayne.
At the time, Still and Rayne were considering doing a trilogy surrounding the 16th president, but nothing materialized right away.
“We both have been busy with other projects but over the course of the next couple of years, the thing that’s really intrigued James is what happened to Lincoln’s wife, Mary Lincoln, and we met about three years ago and talked about doing a play about her,” Rayne says. “There’s a very little known fact about her— the morning after the assassination, she went back to the White house and locked herself in a room for 40 days and wouldn’t come out, preventing President [Andrew] Johnson from moving in.”
That scenario and what happened during those 40 days seemed like such a rich idea to both men that, over the next year, writer and director worked on putting something together.
“At one point, I said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if it were an all-female play?’ and James began to write it that way, and that really interested us,” Rayne says. “For two guys, it was kind of a strange notion, but it worked out great. The story not only would reflect what was going on in Mary Lincoln’s mind, but other women she came into contact with who, in her grief, maybe she would call upon.”
The result of their efforts is The Widow Lincoln, which will play Ford’s Theatre from Jan. 23 to Feb. 22.
“Mary Lincoln was the most famous widow in the world at the time aside for Queen Victoria, and the genesis of the script developed on that basis,” he says. “We held a workshop here in DC last year and worked on further drafts and here we are rehearsing, ready to go on.”
Although hailing from the other side of the pond, Rayne feels he knows as much about Lincoln and the Civil War as almost anyone from Britain. He directed the national tour of the musical Civil War six years ago and did a lot of research for that.
“I did a great deal of research on him then and when I was asked to direct The Heavens Are Hung in Black, I did even more, so I am well versed in the history,” he says. “Plus, Ford’s has the museum and is a fantastic resource and being in Washington, every street corner you are on there’s a plaque telling you more and more about him.”
Of course, there’s more written about Lincoln than probably anyone can read in one’s lifetime, but surprisingly, not too much on his wife—although Rayne says that has changed in recent years.
“There has been both fictional and factual stories about Mary of late, but at some point we had to put all our research down because this is a work of fiction, not fact, and we needed to have our vision,” he says. “People have widely divergent opinions of Mary Lincoln as well, and it’s been an interesting journey so far.”
Rayne feels it was smart of Still to do all the research that he did and come up with his own judgment of Mrs. Lincoln. As a director, his job is to work on Still’s interpretation of the character and base it on his imagination and not see it as a strictly historical drama.
Jan 23 – Feb 22
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
Tickets: $25 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202 347-4833
“The trouble with any play about Lincoln is that people will come in with preconceptions because they think they know who she was and what the events were because there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he says. “No one knows though what was going on those 40 days and I hope people will come in with an open mind. The story is about grief and the way that people deal with emotion and how we cope with death and move forward. Sometimes in Western society, I don’t think we talk about that enough.”
Rayne praises his entire cast and is especially excited to have Mary Bacon as the former First Lady.
“She was someone who we auditioned for The Heavens Are Hung in Black and I loved her then but we didn’t cast her because we cast David Selby as Lincoln, who is probably 10 years too old to play the part, and she was 6-7 years younger than Mary at the time, and the age difference was just too much,” he says. “Here we are 5 years later and she is closer to the age, and we remembered her very fondly and brought her back for auditions in New York. She was as impressive as she was then. She’s an intelligent actress, quick witted and quick minded—probably not at all like Mary—but she was a great choice for this role.”
As for working with an all-female cast, Rayne admits it’s very different.
“I have done Shakespeare plays with the majority of male actors but this is the first time I have been in this situation, and it creates a very different atmosphere in the room,” he says. “I like a democratic atmosphere and we’ve certainly had some fantastical lively discussions. More open than we would have probably with a male cast. It’s a very caring environment and so far has been wonderful.”