A gunshot. Chaos. Followed by shock. And a nation, almost on cue and in sync, lets out a collective wail of grief. But the cries of a lone, new widow displease the gentry surrounding her in the aftermath so much so that her overwhelming anguish becomes a black stain on her character and a case for…insanity.
Loss of independence. Ridicule. Welcome to the cruel, cruel world of Mary Todd Lincoln: southern belle, First Lady, and, as Robert Todd Lincoln and the newspapers of the 1860s would have you think, villain in her own life.
Crazy Mary Lincoln, a new musical from Pallas Theatre Collective, covers the 10 years (1865-1875) after Lincoln’s death. It is a really interesting story, especially given the continual need to examine history, the presidency, and its aftershocks.
Granted, Crazy Mary isn’t about how American life changed post-Abraham Lincoln; it is about the relationship between Mary (Melynda Burdette) and her son Robert (Russell Silber) and how society’s treatment affected them and their interaction. In that way, Crazy Mary—which is drawn from Mrs. Lincoln’s own letters (she was a prolific writer) and other historical documents—reveals true American character.
Consider this: Congress tells Mary, who has witnessed her husband’s murder, that she’ll receive no monetary support or pension though her husband died on the job during wartime. Then, the state of Illinois decides she can’t be buried beside the president in the cemetery at the center of Springfield. Then her only living son forcibly takes over her estate and commits her to a sanatorium, which is filled with ladies afflicted with such things as…rejecting their husband’s sexual advances.
Dr. Patterson (Zach Brewster-Geisz)—the founder and main physician of the facility—flits about with a gaggle of male reporters/followers singing, in “Beautiful Bellevue,” that only he can treat and cure these women. “I redeem them from their madness,” he sings, “I deliver them to gladness. And, they thank me every day. In this perfect little world that I call Bellevue, Every day is ladies day.”
Mary, naturally, fights each undertaking, which only gains her a reputation for being temperamental and cements the idea, started when she resided in the White House – she had a shopping addiction that led to debt, funnily memorialized in “Madame, You Must Pay” and “Pass the Hat for Mary Lincoln”— that she is a “brash, outspoken harpy.”
While Lincoln’s death was a national matter, it was also a familial one, and this musical reminds us of that, especially in numbers such as “How I Wish You Were Beside Me,” “Head of the Family,” and “Family Tree,” the latter sung by young Tad Lincoln (Brevan Collins) at Robert’s wedding to Mary Harlan (Erin Granfield). Tad just wants his family to be a family, something with which Robert struggles as he carries on the “good Lincoln name” for a public audience.
Crazy Mary Lincoln
closes June 18, 2017
Details and tickets
Robert realizes the importance of privacy in the face of family adversity only when his own daughter Mamie (Ayla Collins) takes ill in his absence. “I’m still here,” he says to no one and everyone, especially Mary, earlier in the show “and I’ve lost everyone, too.” And now, he may lose another.
What you see on stage is steeped in truth and while the musical takes some dramatic license, it’s easy to argue that Mary Lincoln’s life needs little to make it more fraught with conflict. The tender, tentative reconciliation between Mary and Robert over Mamie’s sick little body is, perhaps, more imagination than fact, but the truth is that they did reconnect shortly before Mary’s death in 1882.
The songs include some incredibly catchy lyrics which it’s easy to imagine as even bigger, bolder numbers in a larger production, especially against a backdrop of newsboys shouting headlines and corseted ladies showing disdain for Mrs. Lincoln’s will to survive. The time period adds nicely to the story telling, which hits its stride midway through Act I and really captures the humor and absurdity of Mary’s life, generated by others and Mary herself.
When Mary seeks to convene with the spirits of her dearly departed (a well-documented fact), Annette Mooney Wasno as the medium steals the scene, as does Amy Conley as Myra Bradwell – a lawyer championing feminist causes, who springs Mary from Bellevue.
Writers Jan Levy Tranen and Jay Schwandt, along with director Tracey Elaine Chessum, have created a timely piece, observant of both past and present mindsets, familial discord and grief, and private figures in public roles. Hopefully, the musical will have the opportunity to be sharpened into the larger production I feel it deserves.
For now, though, Crazy Mary Lincoln perfectly threads together a golden idea, a compelling story, catchy music, and wry observation about politics, society, and gender in America.
Crazy Mary Lincoln: A New Musical by Jan Levy Tranen and Jay Schwandt. Presented by Pallas Theatre Collective. Directed by Tracey Elaine Chessum. Featuring Melynda Burdette, Russell Silber, Erin Granfield, Brevan Collins, Ayla Collins, Zack Brewster-Geisz, Amy Conley, Stefanie Garcia, Will Hawkins, Madeleine Koon, Garrett Matthews, Christian Rhode, Annette Mooney Wasno, Adelyne Anderson, David Jarzen, and Kyra Smith. Production: Jay Schwandt (Composer/Librettist/Music Director/Pianist); Jan Levy Tranen (Lyricist/Librettist); Karen Lange (Assistant Director); Madeleine Koon (Choreography); Maria Bissex (Costume Design); Jason Aufdem Brinke (Lighting Design); and Tracey Elaine Chessum and Zack Brewster-Geisz (Sound Design). Stage Managed by Madison Lane. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.