From the first moment that Mary Bacon steps onstage, you know this will be a bravura performance. That the stage is the haunted and venerable Ford’s Theatre, and that she is playing Mary Todd Lincoln in the world premiere production of The Widow Lincoln, makes for an even more potent beginning.
Standing stock still, shrouded in an enormous black cloak, her dark eyes darting nervously yet commandingly, Bacon looks as if ready to burst into an operatic aria. It’s an intense introduction to Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental state following her husband’s assassination, and as she launches into a manic monologue detailing Lincoln’s last, hopeful conversation with her on their way to Ford’s Theatre, we feel the tension rising. And at last it’s released, when she tosses the cloak aside to reveal the horror that’s underneath.
It’s a shocking moment to witness, under the balcony where that horror actually occurred in real historic time, and it signals that playwright James Still and director Stephen Rayne will be unafraid to manifest the ghosts of grief and overwhelming loss that permeate the theater, and the mind of the play’s title character.
But it is Bacon, in particular, who is fearless in her attack – embodying all there is to both admire and revile in this complicated woman. It isn’t a comfortable performance, and it shouldn’t be, as we both sympathize with and feel alienated from the Widow Lincoln herself. The play’s chief concern is the widening gulf between personal grief and public mythmaking, and what happens when the man you love and have lost is not just your husband, but revered as savior of the country.
The Widow Lincoln takes place over the forty day period that Mary Todd Lincoln shut herself in the White House, following her husband’s death from a gunshot wound to the head suffered the night before at Ford’s Theatre while attending a performance of Our American Cousin. We all know the details of Lincoln’s fate, but what we don’t really know are the precise details of Mary’s seclusion afterwards. The play, a world premiere as part of Ford’s remembrance of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, seeks to imagine that.
Playwright James Still models this imagined action after the format of Greek tragedy, fittingly, with Mary mostly interacting with herself, another character, and a chorus. It’s highly stylized at times, especially the magnificently jarring first act, with Mary repeating the line from Lincoln’s premonition dream – “Who has died in this house?” – still wearing the bloodstained dress from the night before.
Early on we’re treated to a shocking recitation of the removal of the bullet from Lincoln’s brain, and it’s terrible matter-of-factness is matched by subsequent revelations of how Lincoln’s widow was treated by the surviving men in his circle. She has to listen to the construction of the catafalque to hold Lincoln’s coffin, to decide whether it would be an open casket viewing, to endure his coffin passing the room she is staying in, to address the conflict over his final resting place, all while being pushed to pack up and vacate the White House for its incoming new occupant, Andrew Johnson, who never even sends her his condolences. These are brutal burdens.
Left vulnerable to accusations of being a frivolous hysteric, of hoarding White House items, of the inappropriateness of the debt she incurred trying to raise the stature of the presidency, even of being a Confederate traitor – Mary embodies the loss of power common to women of the Victorian era. One night she is “Mrs. President,” the next, “Widow Lincoln,” and the journey to discover how to best play that new, and very limited, role, is the main action of Still’s surreal view of the forty-day seclusion. During this journey she interacts with other women, also outliers for their time, who had to make their way alone in a world not disposed to help them.
Chief among these is Elizabeth Keckly (Caroline Clay), Mary’s influential dressmaker and friend, and Laura Keene (a captivating Kimberly Schraf), the theatre manager for whom the fateful performance of Our American Cousin was a benefit. While the scenes with Keene are heightened, almost ghostly in their approach, dealing with the roleplaying similarities between acting and politics, the Keckly scenes stay rooted in naturalism, providing a counterbalance throughout between the real and the imagined. It’s an interesting contrast.
Clay and Bacon clearly delineate the strong bond between these two disparate women, with the charismatic Clay showing Keckly’s strength and pragmatism, and as directed by Rayne the two overlap each other in a frenetic, natural pace that rings true for such close intimates. Their very believable and raw scenes give the play a real drive.
Also notable are the quiet exchanges between Mary and the soldier guarding her (Melissa Graves), whose true identity, while not particularly surprising, further seeks to show yet another path for a woman in that era. That relationship allows Bacon to show the more sympathetic side of Mary, and Graves to simply, gently counterpoint that others are grieving for their own losses too. “You have a tender heart, Private Flood,” Mary says, in one of the play’s most delicately charged moments, “Protect it.”
The play and the production are at their strongest when illustrating the divide between the body politic and the body personal. These moments can be incredibly touching, such as Mary detailing the contents of Lincoln’s pocket the night he died, or Keckly remembering tending to his hair while he lived. They can also be powerfully evocative on a grander scale, as when we see the long journey of Lincoln’s body on its whistle-stop tour by train back home to Springfield, as both Clint Allen’s projections and the ensemble’s acting combine to illustrate Mary’s wrenching loss of her husband to the nation, and to legend.
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Its weakest moments come in the rather disjointed second act, especially a séance sequence that stops the action dead, and while the absurdist fun of having a wistful Queen Victoria (the wryly commanding Sarah Marshall) appear to offer condolences and guidance provides some levity, the comparison of the two widows historically doesn’t quite add up – Queen Victoria herself created the mythic Cult of Albert and was Queen Regnant, after all, whereas Mary is losing her husband and her livelihood, his legend being created by others. But it succeeds in reinforcing how women who grieved often had their sanity questioned, as if to truly mourn a beloved husband was excessive, as any excessive emotion began to be stifled and subverted in that most emotional of eras.
Overall The Widow Lincoln is a powerful piece – beautifully acted by a strong, all-female ensemble and framed by a flawless production design. It’s especially aided by Bacon’s performance: she does a complicated woman justice, capturing Mary’s magnetism and neuroticism equally.
It ends with Mary’s final exit from the house she helped revive, to “play” the new role of Widow of Assassinated President, a role for which there was no precedent in American history at that point. Her future will be Dickensian– begging for a pension from the men who wish to eradicate her reputation, fighting against charges of insanity and commitment to an asylum by her own son, disgraced exile, and return.
Let’s hope her return continues, with the play inspiring others to learn more about the very real, very fascinating character of Mary Todd Lincoln, and other women whose voices were denigrated, denied, or ignored.
The Widow Lincoln by James Still . Directed by Stephen Rayne . Featuring Mary Bacon, Caroline Clay, Lynda Gravatt, Melissa Graves, Sarah Marshall, Kimberly Schraf, Gracie Terzian and Brynn Tucker . Scenic Design: Tony Cizek . Costume Design: Wade Leboissonniere . Lighting Design: Pat Collins . Sound Design/Original Music: David Budries and Nathan A. Roberts . Projection Design: Clint Allen . Wig/Make-up Design: Anne Nesmith . Production Stage Manager: Brandib Orebdergastm assusted vt Hannah R. O’Neil . Produced by Ford’s Theatre Society . Reviewed by Jenn Larsen.