Playwright and Director Tazewell Thompson has directed over two dozen productions at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage. With the current popularity of all things Lincoln it was only natural that people would start exploring other aspects of the popular President’s life. Mary T. & Lizzy K. is the story about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln (Naomi Jacobson) and her seamstress Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris). Lizzy K. was a tough, no nonsense freed slave who was also Mary Todd’s friend.
(L-R) Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly and Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K. March 15-April 28, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.
It was just another day; Mary wanted Lizzy to create a new dress for her night out at the theater with her husband. The show starts off with a multilayered conflict between the two friends. Mary is upset that Lizzy has just published a book detailing her life in the White House. She understandably feels like her trust was broken. Lizzy fires back by saying that the only reason the book was written was that she hasn’t been paid in several years.
Harris does a fine job of portraying Lizzy as a strong businesswoman who just happened to be a freed slave. When Mary T. had her “episodes” Lizzy just ignored them until they passed and was tough, but caring. While she and Mary did fight like cats, they had a unique bond. Both actresses have good onstage chemistry.
(L-R) Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln and Joy Jones as Ivy in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K. March 15-April 28, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.
We also meet Lizzy’s apprentice, a freed one-eyed Jamaican slave named Ivy (Joy Jones) who is young and impressionable, always happy to serve and in awe of being in the presence of the First Lady.
Donald Eastman’s set is elegant in its simplicity. It looks like it could be a little dressing room. There is a nice chair in the middle and a stack of antique suitcases piled on the side. It isn’t the most complex stagecraft in the world, but it serves the production well.
At first the play doesn’t make it entirely clear at what point in history these events take place, but we eventually find out that it is the night of the assassination. At this point the entire tenor of the play changes, as the feeling of dread washes over you.
Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K. March 15-April 28, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.
This is especially true when Honest Abe (Thomas Adrian Simpson) comes in to see how his wife is doing. Unlike the one in the recent movie, this Lincoln is full of life, fire, wit and charm. When Mary tells the story of how they met, you can clearly see the love they both share.
You feel his heartbreak when Mary’s bipolar personality breaks out and she’s yelling at him. He screams back that he’s “a broken man” because of her. Some of the yelling gets to be a bit much and goes on too long, but Jacobson does a fabulous job as Mary T. There is an amazing moment when the two are on the floor and he is just at his wits’ end. After watching this segment, you realize how much emotion was truly missing from the recent movie. All of the performances here are really strong and well rounded.
Costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh has created a nice collection of dress styles and fabrics from the time period. Actually the costuming is very spartan, but with all the talk about fashion and fabrics it feels like there are a lot more dresses than there really are. I’m not sure if Salasovich recreated the actual costumes they wore to the theater that night, but the finished products on stage are beautiful.
It seems like Thompson ran out of material and did not know how he wanted the third act to go. There is a point that feels like a clear bittersweet ending, but then everything gets rebooted for a more happy or at least ambivalent one. It seems like there are three separate endings.
The problem is Lincoln’s end is not a happy one, so if you choose to create a play set on that particular night, there is only one way it can possibly end and that is not with sunshine and puppies.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. is playing at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage through May 12, 2013.