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Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln: Character Assassin

In naming their ambitious chamber musical Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln, bookwriter June Bingham and composer/lyricist Carmel Owen bring to mind another famous, though fictional, late 19th century character.  Though most Americans who bother to recall the widowed first lady may think of her as an insane Mr. Hyde, here the authors try and convince us she was a thoughtful and intelligent Dr. Jekyll.  Given a fine and well-sung premiere production by The York Theatre, Asylum is by turns engaging in its successes and frustrating in its failures.  But director Fabrizio Melano and his game ensemble of actors manage to sweep enough weaknesses under the rug to make the evening interesting, entertaining and, hopefully, a prelude to an improved text the next time around.

History gives us a juicy set-up.  Ten years after President Lincoln is assassinated, his son Robert (Edwin Cahill), with political ambitions of his own, gets his mother, Mary Lincoln (Carolann Page) committed to Illinois' Bellevue Asylum in an attempt to separate himself in the public eye from an unpopular woman perceived to have gone mad.  Armed with a reasonable explanation for every claim against her ("A wounded spirit is not a ruined mind."), she's assisted by Myra Bradwell (Bertilla Baker), the country's first female lawyer, and newspaper reporter Franc Wilkie (Daniel Spiotta) in making the nation aware of the injustices in her sanity trial.

Joy Lynn Matthews plays her light-skinned nurse, Delia, whose family heritage includes several master/slave procreations.  She's now a free woman caring for the imprisoned widow of the great emancipator.  John Jellison doubles as Mary's doctor and as Abraham Lincoln seen in flashbacks.  Or are they delusions?

"No one will give me credit for it, but I'm responsible for changing history," proclaims Mary.  In scenes with young Abe we see her as a strong, supporting influence, convincing him to turn down an appointment to be Governor of Oregon for the possibilities that might arise if he stays in Washington.

And though the situation and central character both fascinate, the authors fail to provide enough dramatic oomph to fill two acts.  Their story is presented too simply, mostly due to Owen's serviceable, but colorless lyrics.  Her music is far more dramatically impressive, especially during its recitative sections, enhanced by Bob Goldstone's orchestrations for piano, violin and cello.  The gentle melodies fare much better than a boisterous musical comedy second act opening and reprise, which seem out of place in the piece.

The physical production is very well done, with James Morgan's set dominated by large framed images of the Lincolns, faded enough so that one can't tell if they're paintings or early photography.  Terese Wadden's costumes, heavy with period blacks and grays, wash nicely into this background aided by Chris Robinson's moody lighting.

Carolann Page puts in a dignified and intelligent performance in the title role, with an expressive soprano that often rises above uneven material.  One hopes that Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln can one day be revised into a vehicle worthy of her talents.

Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top:  Edwin Cahill and Carolann Page
Bottom:  Carolann Page and John Jellison

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From This Author Michael Dale