In the world premiere production of The Widow Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, playwright James Still and Director Stephen Rayne create a mélange of fact and fiction, mystery and history, in a stunning portrayal of a tortured woman coping with unspeakable grief. The play provides a fantasy version of what might have happened during a 40-day period in the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the 16th president of the United States. The play was commissioned by Ford’s Theatre as part of “Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination” which is a series of events marking the 150-year anniversary of that historical moment.
Ford’s Theatre is the ideal venue for this production since the shooting of President Lincoln occurred there on April 14, 1865. Moreover, Still is the ideal playwright and Rayne is the ideal director, because their earlier collaboration, The Heavens are Hung in Black—a renowned theatrical portrait of President Lincoln—was commissioned by Ford’s Theatre for its reopening celebration in 2009.
The Widow Lincoln provides more questions than answers, since no one actually knows what went on in that dark White House room where “Mrs. President” closeted herself for the 40 days following her husband’s murder. What did she think about? What future was she contemplating? Indeed, the “character” of Mary Todd Lincoln is a study in contrasts. Was she a 19th century Hillary Rodham Clinton, pushing her husband toward his rendezvous with destiny and helping him with political advice? Or was she a hindrance, a woman who caused her husband endless problems?
What we do know is that Mary Todd Lincoln was a controversial figure from the moment she arrived in Washington DC. She wanted to be seen as the head of society but the ladies of Washington society did not view her that way. That, perhaps, helps to explain her extravagance in buying things to make the White House look better, a place where all the best of society would gather. Mary Lincoln has the dubious distinction of being the only First Lady at that time to be called before a Congressional investigating committee, and there is evidence that she once chased her husband with a knife!
The play opens on a darkened stage with Mary Todd Lincoln, dressed in a black cape surrounded by six women, also dressed in black, carrying candles and softly singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” When Mary’s cape is removed, it reveals a beautiful white dress with blood spatters across the front of it to indicate that the time is immediately after the death of President Lincoln. The set is composed of piles of black and dark brown crates, trunks, and suitcases which are arranged in a semi-circle, as well as two draped red velvet curtains upstage and four chandeliers above. Scenic Designer Tony Cisek, Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere, and Lighting Designer Pat Collins skillfully combine to provide an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the drama, including lighting the actual Ford’s Theatre Presidential Box at critical junctures in the play.
The ultra-talented Mary Bacon plays the title role, and brilliantly brings to life the roller-coaster-like mood swings of Mary Lincoln’s personality, from screaming nightmares to wistful remembrances of better days. The other members of the all-female cast turn in bravura performances in a variety of featured roles and ensemble work: Brynn Tucker (Guard), Brynn Tucker (Young Maid), and Lynda Gravátt (Mammy Sally).
Periodically, the ensemble serves as a Greek Chorus taunting the widow by chanting the news of the day—most of which is not complimentary to Mary Lincoln. In one scene, the menacing cacophony of voices itemizes Mary’s profligate spending, while repeating, “Please remit,” and showers the stage with bills.
Caroline Clay is splendid as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant. Both women have suffered the deaths of loved ones, and Mary tries to comfort Elizabeth by saying, “War measures our lives not in days, but in deaths!” Elizabeth tries to be the practical one, by encouraging Mary to finish packing and leave the White House.
There is a running theme throughout the play that the life of a First Lady is like that of an actress, and the story includes several apocryphal scenes with Mary Lincoln talking to legendary actress Laura Keene, who was performing onstage at Ford’s Theatre when Abraham Lincoln was shot. Kimberly Schraf does an excellent job portraying the actress while instructing Mary that she must, “know her part and play her part.”
A bit of welcome comic relief is provided by Sarah Marshall as Queen Victoria and Gracie Terzian as Nettie, the spirit-medium. While the visit from Victoria never happened, there is evidence that Mary Lincoln believed in communicating with the spirits and participated in séances. There is even evidence that President Lincoln participated at least once, but it is not known whether he was a believer or was merely trying to humor his wife.
Mary Lincoln lost her husband and three of her sons, and was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t attend her husband’s funeral. So, it’s no wonder that her own son would question her sanity.
The Widow Lincoln provides the audience with an opportunity to join Mary Todd Lincoln in a descent into madness that is well worth the trip. It’s a powerful theatrical experience, not to be missed.
Running Time: About two hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Widow Lincoln plays through February 22, 2015 at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 347-4833, purchase them at the Ford’s Theatre Box Office, or online