Tragedy seemed to stalk Mary Todd Lincoln as surely as it did her husband.
Long before that Good Friday in 1865 when the Lincolns decided to attend Ford’s Theatre, it was clear that the mental health of the president’s wife had begun to fray.
To this day, she is a riveting figure. There’s something of a Shakespearean dimension about her personality and her life, which, post-Washington, included stints in a mental asylum. No wonder she dominates the uneven, but intriguing, new play by Tazewell Thompson, although the first lady gets only half the title.
“Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” receiving its world premiere at Arena Stage, delves into the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, the former slave who, after an unsuccessful attempt at starting a business in Baltimore, became a sought-after dressmaker in Washington.
Keckly’s clients included the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, but her most celebrated patron was the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Keckly was more than a source of fashion guidance for Mary. She was a confidante and source of moral support as the Civil War and its daily toll sewed a black border around their lives.
That friendship deteriorated only after Keckly’s memoir, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,” was published in 1868.
When “Mary T. and Lizzy K.” opens, it is the first lady’s turn to know what it means to be denied freedom. She is confined to an asylum, where, she tells us, she has been “inundated with strangers” who “congregate” in her brain, “marching about in leaden shoes,” mingling with “mangled thoughts” and “useless information.”
“I navigate through the maze. My head held together. By a pin,” Mary says.
(That style of speech, in short phrase-blocks, is used throughout Thompson’s script for all the characters, a device that occasionally calls attention to itself.)
Mary (Naomi Jacobson) effects a kind of escape by conjuring up Lizzy (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), acting “Out of fear. And loneliness. Fear of being alone.”
This may only be a figment of Mary’s tenuous imagination (the cliched sound of wind chimes underlines that notion), but the summoning of a once-close friend, with all the memories and baggage involved, proves an effective way for Thompson to launch the one-act, 100-minute play.
The two women must first face the matter of that book, which Mary views as a betrayal of confidence and privacy. “What is this need to know?” she demands. But they’re soon back into a groove of affection and, in Mary’s case, dependency.
Flashbacks are woven into the action, with particular emphasis on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Dresses provide the connective thread through all of this, as Lizzy fits Mary for her latest creation, trying to convince the first lady that it is time to lose the pagoda shape and accept the latest craze, a crinoline cage.
As the play unfolds, more and more of Mary’s inner demons, as well as better angels, are unleashed. Every characteristic you’ve ever read about this woman seems to surface in one way or another — proud, arrogant, charming, playful, opinionated, vain, tender, sentimental, meddlesome, spoiled, loyal, paranoid.
All of that comes out in Jacobson’s galvanizing portrayal. She commands the stage from the start and never loosens her grip. Her thoroughly natural performance makes Mary remarkably touching.
Jacobson particularly shines during a passage when Mary tries to explain what we would call a shopping compulsion, savoring each word in a long, rich stream of almost poetic thoughts about the objects she needs to have around her.
Even “the hatboxes themselves” are important, filled with their “promise of crowning glory inside.” These are the things she can hold, things that “don’t go away to fight a war … don’t suffer from illness. Or die. Or leave me in the middle of the night.”
In such moments as these, the play soars.
Lizzy, by comparison, is not so vibrantly drawn by Thompson. Plenty of fascinating details emerge about this woman who had such an amazing view of momentous history (she endured many a setback and hard time), but she still seems distant and elusive by the end of the play.
Luqmaan-Harris does not help by speaking in a rather flat manner, with limited dynamics and inflections. Perhaps she is trying too hard to demonstrate the tough exterior Lizzy would have needed to survive and thrive.
But in the play’s most magical sequence — Mary and Lizzy giddily recall marvelous jewels the first lady once had — Jacobson and Luqmaan-Harris prove equally marvelous. The sense of sisterly tenderness, the genuine bond between women from two different spheres, becomes deeply palpable.
Thompson could have focused entirely on the title characters (and may have been stronger for it), but he adds two others — Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and an imaginary, one-eyed assistant for Lizzy named Ivy (Joy Jones). Both end up stealing more attention from Lizzy.
The president gets a familiar treatment, with bits of hayseed clinging to the noble persona, and his walking-on-eggs relationship with Mary Todd is tellingly depicted. Simpson doesn’t have all the height for the role, but he has the stature, if you will, and a good twang.
Even when Lincoln is at his most exasperated, bemoaning “the seventeen hundredth anniversary” of an argument with his wife about another woman, or taking out his anger on a White House chair, Simpson allows the man’s innermost feelings for Mary to surface subtly.
Ivy, a former Jamaican slave with many a vivid chapter from her past (the story of how she lost her eye is potent), serves as a buffer of sorts between Mary and Lizzy. Jones gives a beautifully nuanced performance that neatly conceals, until the last moment, Ivy’s steely spine.
Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costume designs give the production a great dash of atmosphere and color to complement Donald Eastman’s sober set, which suggests an attic packed with old feelings, not just furniture and boxes.
Robert Wierzel’s lighting is another effective element in a staging directed stylishly by Thompson.
His play feels a little diffuse or padded at times (and tries way too hard to get humor out of a running gag related to the expression “the show must go on”). But, ultimately, the work provides a sympathetic and illuminating journey into Mary Todd’s terribly unsettled world.