BWW Reviews: THE WIDOW LINCOLN at Ford's Theatre

Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, is the subject of a new play which premieres this month, marking 150 years since the President's assassination. Ford's Theatre, the site of the crime that took the civil rights legend from us, has commissioned playwright James Still to capture a moment in time which very little is known about.

In the forty days following the assassination, Mrs. Lincoln locked herself in a room of the White House, refusing to leave, even after President Andrew Johnson had moved in. In program notes, Ford's Director of Artistic Programming, Patrick Pearson, goes to great length to tell us about how misunderstood the President's wife has been in historical context. While she had a decidedly difficult life and specifically difficult time while in the White House, she significantly helped define the role of First Lady and helped make the White House what it is today.

Unfortunately, it seems as though the playwright didn't take these notes to heart. What we're left with is an unsympathetic and at times, snotty protagonist who imparts a muddled set of emotions that fall short of depicting a genuine sense of grief and loss.

The play begins moments before the assassination and carries us through what might have been going on in the room, and in Mrs. Lincoln's head during the following forty days. As no one actually knows what happened (as the door was locked), Still takes great liberty in creating everything from (projected green) ghosts of the actors onstage that night performing Our American Cousin to Queen Victoria magically crawling out of a suitcase in the eleventh hour to share some tea and sympathy with the widow. The audience is even treated to a very out-of-place seance to somehow conjure the dead president. Unfortunately all they're able to summon is the hunter guy from Jumanji.

Throughout the evening, we are treated to a Mary Lincoln (Mary Bacon) who goes from crying to hysterical to crying again. While Bacon does an amiable job trying to create this character from next to nothing, we are left with a very one-note portrayal of the First Lady. Supporting characters can be heard repeating the same lines over and over again to calm the frazzled widow - "Mrs. Lincoln! MRS. LINCOLN!" and for some reason, a White House military guard who comes and goes has decided to go all Mulan on us and unshockingly reveal that they are indeed, not a man.

Director Stephen Rayne, I believe, does what he can with the lumberous play. He's creative with the use of an onstage Greek chorus of sorts which serves as part memory, part conscience for Mrs. Lincoln. Their presence at times invokes an almost Dickensian look and feel to the proceedings. The staging for the most part takes place in a 15' x 15' area down stage center, which is engulfed by the enormous scenery taking up the rest of the seemingly cavernous stage. This assisted in creating an almost claustrophobic space in which the First Lady was left to deal with her emotions.

The brilliant scenic design by Tony Cisek envisions hundreds of packed trunks adding only to the overwhelming emotion overtaking the widow. Pat Collins' lighting design in collaboration with projections by Clint Allen is also beautiful, with stunning visual effects and enhancement of Cisek's design. And Wade Laboissonniere's constantly creative costumes provide an accurate and gorgeous picture of the fashions of the day.

While it's encouraging to see an all-female cast, clearly working hard to make the material work, the play left me aching for characters with more strength, more self-preservation. Sarah Marshall's Queen Victoria brought a much-needed giggle and Caroline Clay as Lincoln's dress designer/confidante, Elizabeth Keckly brought some welcome grounding to her scenes with the First Lady.

When we don't actually know what happened in the room, why not paint a picture more like the notes in the program? A woman who lost nearly everyone in her life and kept going? An intelligent, educated woman who faced scrutiny and criticism from all sides and kept her composure as opposed to the woman we watch having a Lady Macbeth-level emotional breakdown for 2 1/2 hours?

The Widow Lincoln is running until February 22 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th Street Northwest, Washington DC, 20004. Tickets are available by visiting http://www.fordstheatre.org.

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From This Author Jamie McGonnigal

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