The world premiere of “The Widow Lincoln” at Ford’s Theatre, site of the assassination 150 years ago, offers an unusually human portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, our most reviled First Lady.
The wrenching, wringing play by James Still, more an imagining based on history than a historical costume drama, is set in the 40 days after President Lincoln was shot.
Mrs. Lincoln was so overwrought with grief and despair that she refused to attend her husband’s funeral, or to move from the White House for 40 days, keeping President Andrew Johnson from moving in. (Jacqueline Kennedy left the White House 10 days after becoming the widow Kennedy.)
“I won’t leave because Mr. Lincoln might walk through that door,” says Mary Lincoln (Mary Bacon).
The play, directed by Stephen Rayne, does depict just how little mourning became Mrs. Lincoln. She made “unearthly shrieks, convulsions of a broken heart” in one small room in the White House.
She went rather mad, morose and bellicose, even delusional. Her life had already been plagued with losses — two of their four sons had died in boyhood; a brother, three half-brothers, and brother-in-law were killed fighting as Confederate soldiers; and her mother had died when Mary was only six years old.
The drama starts with a bang. In blackout, suddenly there’s a startlingly loud gunshot. Simultaneously, a white-bright spotlight illuminates Mary Lincoln in a black velvet cloak. Then, six women draped in black, each holding a burning candle and softly singing “Nearer My God to Thee” file in, encircle her, and file out.
“I don’t recall him ever more cheerful…talking of our future,” Mrs. Lincoln reminisces about their carriage ride just hours before the President was shot on Good Friday, five days after the Civil War had ended. “Winning the war becomes you.”
She drops her black cloak to reveal her elegant Southern belle white gown with flowers — and blood spatter.
She reels off some of the many insults hurled repeatedly at her, like “a Republican majesty” and “Illinois queen.” She adds coquettishly, “Looking like a lady is the most important part of being a lady.” And “I looked the part, didn’t I — Mrs. President!”
One by one the fine all-female cast, like a Greek chorus, calls out many other accusations, “spy”, “traitor”, even “N—– lover”. The Kentucky-born Mrs. Lincoln was thought a traitor by many Southerners, deemed a Confederate spy by many Northerners, an obsessive spender by most people — “a mercenary prostitute,” jeered one Georgia paper.
Vilified from all corners, especially by what she calls “the vampire press”, the play balances her self-indulgence and ambition with her trying to elevate the image of the President and White House as well as herself; her purported shrewishness with her shrewd strategies, mostly ignored by the Lincoln administration; her willfulness with her bold independence “I never did like people telling me what to do.”
In one scene, the women, perched atop dozens of old dusty trunks stacked high, read out bills for numerous costly items of furniture, curtains, china (evoking Nancy Reagan’s “china-gate”), concluding each bill with “Please Remit” louder and louder, and tossing it like confetti. The bills scroll on the backdrop faster and faster, down then up then down, left-right, right-left (lighting by Pat Collins, stage design by Tony Cisek). It’s very effective initially, but goes on much too long.
Same for the séance scene. First Lady Lincoln consulted a “transmedium”, psychic, in the White House 120 years before First Lady Reagan did. Mrs. Lincoln held séances regularly to communicate with her son Willie, who had died at age 11 in the White House — in the same room where President’s body lay.
Despite many minutes of attempted communing, psychic Nettie Colburn (Gracie Terzian) is unable to reach the spirit of Lincoln. That, somehow, seems the one thing that finally convinces Mrs. Lincoln her husband is indeed dead.
The real seer is Mary Lincoln’s “one true friend among strangers,” her black dressmaker Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckly (Caroline Clay). Keckly tries to calm and console her, while also attempting to get her to accept reality and perspective.
The widow is so consumed with the loss of her husband, whom she calls “Father”, that she seems unaware of the country’s loss of its President — the first to be assassinated. Keckly points out, “He is the nation’s father — we are all now orphans.”
Learning more about Keckly, one of the few people the widow allows near her, is one of the best aspects of the play. After buying her way out of slavery, Keckly got her start as seamstress to the stars by making dresses for Mrs. Jeff Davis before her husband became President of the Confederate States of America. Keckly lost her only son in the war; he had “passed” as white to join the Union forces. To really learn more, read her 1868 autobiography, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House”.
Two other plays are interwoven throughout: “Our American Cousin”– “actors reciting vivacious stupidities” when Lincoln was shot — and “Macbeth”, which Lincoln could recite in its entirely. Mary Todd Lincoln, the first of many First Ladies to be compared to Lady Macbeth, says “out, out damned spot” as she tried to wipe away the blood on her gown, and “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps this petty pace…”
The pace and the nearly unremitting pathos weigh heavily — but it’s the widow Lincoln, stupid.
Mary Bacon, whose wide-set eyes and luminous complexion resemble the young Mary Todd, deserves a Helen Hayes Award nomination for sustaining such high intensity throughout the emotionally wringing play. “What is to become of me,” she repeats. “How will I live?” “There will be no place for me ever again without my beloved husband.”
Some much-needed comic relief to this understandable desolation is provided by none other than Queen Victoria. But Queen V’s departing wink is over the top of her teeny weeny crown.
The atmosphere is lifted also by recollected humorous comments of Lincoln’s, and by the widow’s sisters, who had warned her not to marry him: “He has no future” and “He’s the ugliest man in Illinois.” But Mary knew “He is fated to be someone.” And “his eyes were a poem.”
This play is a poetic, relatively balanced portrayal of the widow Lincoln.
As playwright Still puts it, “Mary Lincoln is both magnetic and appalling, both tragic and triumphant.”
It’s the second play Ford’s commissioned from Still, whose first was “The Heavens Are Hung In Black”, for Lincoln’s bicentennial in 2009.
“The Widow Lincoln”, continuing through Feb. 22, begins “Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination”, a year-long tribute to President Lincoln for the 150th anniversary of his death.
It includes a 24-hour tribute April 14-15, and an exhibition, “Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination”, from March 23-May 25. These items from the night he was shot are reunited for the first time. They include her black cloak, a fragment of her blood-stained gown, his great coat and contents of its pockets that held a 5-dollar Confederate bill. In one of the play’s most touching scenes, she caresses the coat, takes out its belongings, then lovingly sews a button back on it.
“Mary Lincoln is a much abused First Lady and unfairly so. Those who criticize her overlook her enormous contributions to her husband,” says Jean H. Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, a Ford’s advisor, and professor at Goucher College in Baltimore.
As Margaret Truman, daughter of President Harry Truman and First Lady Bess Truman, wrote in “First Ladies”, from the moment Lincoln was shot, “Mary Lincoln ceased to be a balanced woman. Can anyone blame her?”
For more info and tickets: “The Widow Lincoln”, through Feb. 22,Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-347-4833. Tickets online or 800-982-2787. “Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination”.