Arena Stage Explores the Lincoln White House
Tazewell Thompson’s new play Mary T. & Lizzy K., now playing at Arena Stage, is based on the unlikely friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, a slave who bought herself from her master and became a much admired dress designer – her clients included the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The tensions inherent in relationships like that, which race and class are supposed to preempt, have energized a lot of narratives, from The Help to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Thompson has assigned himself a greater challenge than either Kathryn Stockett or Mark Twain attempted: he’s trying to turn thoroughly documented historical circumstances into viable theater, which is hard to do because what happens in reality is rarely what needs to happen on stage.
Thompson uses several theatrical techniques to shake reality’s grip. For example, all of the action occurs on a single set, which is more symbolic than realistic. Donald Eastman’s design looks like either an attic or a basement, with old wardrobes and trunks in a jumble on one side and assorted chairs in disarray on the other side. A place for stuff, not for people. The walls point toward a vanishing point in the distance behind the stage, and windows near the ceiling – too far off the ground to afford any view – let in light that looks tired, as if it had to come a long way. Midway through the production, a semi-transparent curtain drops from the ceiling and hangs between the stage and the audience for a while, then it falls into a heap on the floor, where it lies for the rest of the play.
Flashback structure helps Thompson imagine events that stray from the line of historical chronology. The play begins some ten years after the night Mary went to the theater with her husband for the last time, but it returns to that evening and various other historical moments repeatedly. The opening exchange between Mary (Naomi Jacobson) and Lizzy (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) recurs as a kind of refrain:
“What? Who? Lizzy?” Mary asks, in sudden panic. “Are you there? I need my Lizzy. Where’s my Lizzy?”
Lizzy answers: “I’m still here. Waiting. You called me here.”
Mary and Lizzy converse primarily in fragments, sometimes combining them to make conventional syntactical units and sometimes letting the fragments stand on their own, as predicates with no explicit subject. The fragmented interchanges create either the impression that the two women are so thoroughly enmeshed in one another’s thoughts that each of them already knows half of what the other wants to say, or that they’re picking their way carefully through emotionally dangerous terrain that’s easier to navigate if they don’t acknowledge who did what.
Along with the the exceptional performances of the entire cast, the play’s most compelling components are its secondary characters, the first of whom is Ivy (Joy Jones), Lizzy’s Jamaican apprentice. Ivy speaks a language that evokes the English a recent Caribbean immigrant might use, but the effect of its stylization is more lyrical than realistic; in other words, Thompson is creating a sound, not imitating one. A beautiful sound. Ivy seems to sing whenever she opens her mouth, even when she tells the story of losing her eye: after raping her, a white man tore it out because she refused his advances. The contrast between the brutality of the story’s details and the music of its syntax and vocabulary makes it hard to swallow while she talks, and the story lasts a long time.
Sometimes, however, the stylization makes her sound childish: “Miss Lizzy. She took the needle. She took the thread. She shut the missing spot. In my face. Long time it take. For the hurt to get gone. Long time.” Ivy’s music ought to sound more thoroughly evolved than that.
The other secondary character is Abraham Lincoln, (a charming Thomas Adrian Simpson) who probably looms larger in America’s imagination than anyone else, largely because he was killed for elevating people like Ivy to human status. It’s not supposed to be Lincoln’s play, but its best scenes are attempts to imagine how he managed to convince his wife to go to Ford’s Theater with him. They are the best scenes for several reasons: because the characters are inextricably invested in each other; because there’s something worth fighting for at stake; because each of them yearns for something we want them to have; because we know what’s going to happen, and we wish it wouldn’t; and because their language makes us feel as if we’ve thought those things ourselves but never had the nerve to say to them.
Thomas Adrian Simpson’s performance as Lincoln is one of the production’s highlights. He and Naomi Jacobson play off each other beautifully during a long scene in the middle of the play that shows how manic depression unhinges both the person who has it and the people who love her. Simpson moves from affectionate cajoling into frustration, and then through exasperation into rage and despair to wind up weeping on the floor. Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris does a fine job showing emotional calibration with a tilt of her head or the tone of her voice, and Joy Jones convey’s Ivy’s exuberance in the face of forces and events that might have broken weaker people.
One might argue that the strength of Ivy and Abraham as characters derives in part from weaknesses in Mary and Lizzy. Mary is crazy — eventually we realize that the strange set represents Batavia Place, the asylum to which her son committed her in 1875 – and you can’t make sense of crazy, so it isn’t very interesting. By contrast, Lizzy is the epitome of lucid self-determination, a quality that’s fun to watch when it has room to work; but Lizzy doesn’t get to exercise it in these circumstances. She’s there because Mary called her, and though she may have answered Mary’s call out of friendship, she sounds more embittered than affectionate, as well she might have been embittered by her real life.
“The characters provoked me,” Thompson says in his Director’s Notebook, “and were determined, and demanded to speak, through me, for themselves. Up front and center stage they whispered to me their inner torments, rages, wistful dreams, intimacies, and alternately reminiscing, bantering and settling scores.”
His play invites us to imagine how those women might have thought about each other and themselves, but the shadow of history impedes their development as characters.
Running Time: One hour and forty minutes, with no intermission.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. plays through May 5, 2013 at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online, or by phone at (202) 554-9066.