BWW Reviews: Arena Stage Premieres Period Drama MARY T. & LIZZY K.
At one point in Tazewell Thompson's world premiere play Mary T. & Lizzy K. President Abraham Lincoln and 'Mrs. President,' as Mary Todd Lincoln liked to be called, ponder why they are going to see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. This leads into a lengthy and somewhat repetitive dialogue on theatrical tradition and the purpose of the theatre. At the end of this convoluted and overly pretentious drama, I too was questioning the purpose of theatre - specifically this piece.
It would seem that the unlikely friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln (Naomi Jacobson) and her African American dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) during the Lincoln presidential administration and beyond would be compelling source material for the theatre. We have an unusual friendship between two women who, though vastly different, have a common bond. Their unique bond, strengthened in a time of personal and national turmoil, could have been explored in numerous ways.
Thompson, who wrote and directed this piece, chooses to tell their story in a non-linear fashion. Without giving away too many of the details, I will say that flashbacks are used with the setting being a mental institution where Mrs. Lincoln resides following her husband's assassination. Mrs. Lincoln is grappling with the events leading up to and following her husband's death. Her situation is, in part, explored through the context of her relationship with Mrs. Keckly, her confidant and dressmaker.
Sounds compelling, right? I only wish. In this play, we never really get to the heart of the story - the complex relationship between the two women. Instead, we are treated to more than a few scenes where Mrs. Keckly is making Mrs. Lincoln a dress with the help of her assistant, Ivy (Joy Jones). More than a few times, Mrs. Lincoln - unstable and vivacious as she is - complains to Mrs. Keckly about what she's doing and Mrs. Keckly in turn complains about her lack of payment. While this dress wearer-dress maker tie is one foundation for their relationship, these scenes are mostly used to serve as an entry point for other stories - the story of Ivy (perhaps the most superfluous of them all), the story of Mary T.'s mental illness, and the story of the Lincoln marriage, among others.
Does it sound like a lot of stories are at play? Yes, there most definitely are many subplots - and that's the problem. Although I do not doubt that many theatrical pieces are strong in part because of the complex and rich stories that underpin them, Thompson's creation is not one of these, unfortunately. In the end, the play leaves me to question what Thompson wants the audience to take away from it all.
There's always a problem too when a supporting character, in this case President Abraham Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson), is drawn in a way that's richer and more interesting than the leads. Simpson's portrayal of the beloved American leader is one of the saving graces of the show. His purposeful characterization of the president and the man behind the title is one of the best I've seen. If this were a play about Lincoln himself, I would have been riveted throughout. But it wasn't - his inclusion, although necessary at some level, is a distraction although not as much as the inclusion of Ivy.
This praise of Mr. Simpson is not intended to suggest that Ms. Jacobson and Ms. Luqmaan-Harris do not bring their acting 'a-game'. They do. Jacobson's attention to detail in showing Mrs. Lincoln's range of emotions at any given moment is something that should be commended. Her stage presence and charisma made even the dullest of the repetitive dressmaking scenes something to watch simply to admire her skill. Likewise, Luqmaan-Harris shines is the 'quieter' of the two roles, but she's given even less to work with than her counterpart. I'm confident that if you put these to ladies in a show that's more focused, they would be mesmerizing as their respective characters.
The minimal production elements - Donald Eastman's set of a sparse room with piles of long-forgotten wooden furniture, Merrily Murray-Walsh's rich, colorful, and period appropriate costumes, Fabian Obispo's sound designs and compositions, and Robert Wierzel's lighting design - give a raw and authentically artistic flavor to the evening.
Unfortunately, however, we can't judge the artistic merit of a show on these elements alone or the strength of the actors. Perhaps an additional artistic voice helping Thompson to realize the show - and avoid the dangers of writing and directing one's own piece - would have allowed his play to realize its full potential.
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission. Mary T. & Lizzy K. runs through April 28, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.