If you know anything about Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882), you know The Widow Lincoln now playing at Ford's Theatre will not be a happy presentation, especially since it takes place in the days after Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865.
The dark script contains few surprises, but the best effects of the play are the conversations it will spark about Mrs. Lincoln.
Everything is bleak, and there's no variation from the negative stereotype of Mary Todd Lincoln, a shrill, emotional, unbalanced woman, the mate of our most beloved president. She was more.
I thought I read somewhere that the play was to be a sympathetic portrait of her, but I saw little evidence. She brought class to the White House. Abraham Lincoln married her, and they had four children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood (Eddie, age 3, and Willie, age 11 when the Lincolns were in the White House). Her husband was shot at her side at Ford's Theatre. She was supposed to be balanced?
I did not know she stayed in the White House for five weeks after the president died April 15, 1865, nor that she did not accompany his funeral train which traveled 1,654 miles from Washington to 180 cities in seven states before it reached its destination of Springfield, Illinois where he was buried on May 4. Nor that she did not attend his funeral.
James Still wrote The Widow Lincoln on commission from Ford's as part of Ford's 150, a series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination.
Under the direction of Stephen Rayne, Mary Bacon, in her Ford debut, does a distinguished job (if her Southern accent is a trifle exaggerated) as Mary Todd Lincoln, who is mostly hysterical, besot by ghosts, hosting seances in the White House, and dreaming that Queen Victoria of England comes to call. The script has several disquieting pauses and too many Lincoln soliloquies.
Surrounding the first lady during most of the production are women positioned on top of her mountains of trunks which randomly move up and down stage. (Mary Todd Lincoln was charged with buying too many clothes.) Those associates become at different times, the naysayers, friends, and ghosts who speak in choruses, and individually steal quietly from their perches to frequently enter the stage in different apparel as new characters: Sarah Marshall is Queen Victoria and assumes another role when she joins other cast members (Kimberly Schraf, Gracie Terzian, and Melissa Graves) in excerpts from Our American Cousin, the play the Lincolns went to see that night at Ford's.
One of the most powerful performances is delivered by Caroline Clay as Elizabeth Keckly, Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and close friend.
The role of the young guard is played by Ms. Graves whose gender is never in question. Some women did cut their hair, join the military, and went off to war in search of husbands, brothers, and other loved ones.
Other cast members are Lynda Gravatt and Brynn Tucker. Neither man nor sufficient contrasting dialogue comes forward to lighten the script or stage design.
Mary Todd Lincoln's first gown in the show (by Wade Laboissonniere) is a big blossoming magnolia which appears to be designed after an original, with a pink floral pattern on the skirt's front, but after a few moments, becomes the president's blood stains, reminiscent of the suit worn by another first lady whose husband was assassinated while sitting beside her and who was attacked for her clothing expenditures.
I don't believe Mary Bacon left the stage once during the entire performance, and, in the style of the day, changed garments on stage.
Lighting (by Pat Collins), shadow effects (projection by Clint Allen), and sounds of the Lincoln funeral train (by David Budreis and Nathan A. Roberts) are enduring and skillfully woven.
Civil War era music composed by Mr. Budreis and Mr. Roberts fills the venue before and during parts of the the play, sounding as if an orchestra is in the pit, but none was found on-site or in the program.
Other key crew members are Tony Cisek, scenic design; Anne Nesmith, wigs and make-up; Lynn Watson, dialects; Kristin Fox-Siegmund, director of programming; Brandon Prendergast and Hannah R. O'Neil, stage managers.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one woman in her time plays one part
What: The Widow Lincoln
When: Through Feb. 22, 2015 on most Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20004
Tickets: From $15-$62 with discounts for groups, seniors, military, and those younger than 35
Duration: About two hours with one intermission
For more information: 202-347-4833
Metro stations: Metro Center or Gallery Place-Chinatown
To read other local reviews of shows still playing, go to Other Reviews on DCMetroTheaterArts.