“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” James Brown said, in a song for which Betty Jean Newsome (a woman’s woman’s woman and, for a brief spell, one of Brown’s girlfriends) was granted co-writing credit only after she sued him. It’s never been easy for women (he said), not in 1964 or 1865 or 1587. Not even for first ladies. Not even for queens.
Historical Marys whose lives were rerouted by assassination are the subjects of two plays that opened last week: The Widow Lincoln is a world premiere commissioned by Ford’s Theatre, and it imagines Mary Todd’s anguish in the weeks after her husband’s fatal shooting in a box above that very stage 150 years ago. Mary Stuart is a six-year-old update of 215-year-old dramatization of a now 430-year-old power struggle in England. It suggests that politics have changed little since the Tudor era, which is why the older play actually feels newer. (It’s also staged and performed with much more vigor.) Men try to sway both its queens—Mary (Kate Eastwood Norris), who had a strong claim to the throne, and the technically illegitimate Elizabeth (Holly Twyford), who had the throne itself, skirting due process to keep her cousin Mary Gitmo’d for 18 years. But ultimately, the dudes must submit to their “female king,” as one of them spits. The Widow Lincoln, meanwhile, has no men at all.
What it does have is Mary Todd’s baggage. Literal baggage: Tony Cisek’s set design stacks dozens of steamer trunks on the otherwise unadorned stage like a children’s fort. Todd—wound tighter than a piano string as played by Mary Bacon—is supposed to be packing up to vacate the White House for incoming President Andrew Johnson, whom she berates as “that Tennessee drunk.” (Given that the pallbearers of LBJ—who, like the earlier President Johnson, was a Southern man elected by a bullet—have stirred to protest his portrayal in Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, will AJ’s cronies write the Washington Post urging people to boycott The Widow Lincoln, too?) But she’s dragging her heels, even as looters venture into the White House and the hoi polloi begin to accuse her of stealing the china and silverware she ordered to aggrandize the place, running up a tab of $27,000—roughly a bazillion dollars in 2015 money.
Todd exhibited signs of mental illness before her husband’s death, but that she endured more loss than anyone should be expected to bear is undeniable. She suffered from migraines and anxiety throughout her life, which were only made worse by a head injury sustained in a carriage crash. She buried two child sons before she buried her husband, and would bury one more after that. No wonder that when she doffs her black cloak, her white dress is still stained with President Lincoln’s blood and viscera. (Wade Laboissonniere designed the costumes.)
Her closest confidant is Elizabeth Keckly (Caroline Clay), who lived the first 34 years of her life in bondage before becoming a sought-after dressmaker to “Washington City’s” finest. Like Todd, Keckly was no stranger to grief. She’d bought herself and her son out of slavery in 1852; a decade later, her son left college to fight for the Union and was killed in combat. Scandalously, Keckly published a memoir of her time with the Lincolns, which might be why she’s so well remembered. Gloria Reuben played her in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, for which Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay.
Spielberg’s movie, at least, was notable for the way it mostly did away with the suffocating decorum that attends so many depictions of the 16th president. The Heavens Are Hung in Black, the previous Ford’s-commissioned Lincoln play from the Widow team—writer James Still and director Stephen Rayne—did, too. Set in 1862, it explored President Lincoln’s grief for his 11-year-old son, and for the innumerable sons he ordered to their deaths, which manifests itself through sleeplessness. But walking through the waking dreams of the funniest chief executive we ever had was a lot more fun than sitting shiva with poor, mad Mary. She doesn’t even convene a séance until the play is nearly over.
Even the presence of Brynn Tucker, whose solo show A Guide to Dancing Naked enlivened the Capital Fringe Festival a couple of summers ago, doesn’t do much to spike the energy level. She’s the youngest of a half-dozen maids in mourning clothes, a Greek chorus that includes Kimberly Schraf, who also plays Laura Keene—the British actress who was performing in the production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s during which John Wilkes Booth shot the President—and Sarah Marshall, who also turns up as Queen Victoria, modulating her speech as though embodying a transatlantic condolence letter. Marshall’s look of forbearance when Todd tells the monarch a silly joke the president once made about his wife’s maiden name earns the biggest laugh of the evening. But the most striking moment comes when we hear an excerpt of the President’s autopsy report read, and the chorus of mourners each drop a bullet into their white bowls in unison. Plink.
Bacon’s Mary steers into the skid of her disintegration by quoting Lady Macbeth; her husband would sometimes unwind, she says, by performing that spooky play out loud, in its entirety, from memory. And yet a late-show reveal about a soldier assigned to guard her owes more to Shakespeare’s comedy than his tragedies. If only it brought a few more laughs with it.
Mary Stuart is all smuggled letters and clandestine oaths and palace intrigue and powerhouse performances. It builds to and then reverberates from a confrontation, early in the second half, between its two queens. They meet only the once, which is one more time than they met in real life, but to quote Herr Schiller (as dramaturg Michele Osherow does in the program), “it is betraying very narrow ideas on tragic art…to drag the tragic poet before the tribunal of history.” That tête-à-tête is the most electrifying scene in the play, with Norris’ proud Mary kneeling before Twyford’s aloof Elizabeth to plead for her own release. WSC Avant Bard used this same, svelte Oswald translation for its 2010 Mary Stuart with Heather Haney as Mary and Sara Barker as Elizabeth. That was good. This is better.
Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects regard Mary as their true ruler, and if she kills Mary, she risks making a martyr. The show feels contemporary in its understanding of the way pawns may be expected to sacrifice themselves, knowingly or not, to protect their leaders’ reputations.
Though the set (Widow’s Cisek did this one, too) makes Mary’s cell look like a dungeon with with dank stone walls (before they slide back to reveal the gold paneling of Elizabeth’s throne room), she is in fact the involuntary house guest of a nobleman played by Louis Butelli—one too honorable to abide the sycophantic Lord Burleigh’s suggestion that some misadventure should befall Mary while in his charge. Rajesh Bose’s Burleigh is the only shaky performance. He affects a cartoonish, nasal accent. The other actors, happily, just talk the way they talk.
And what other actors: Cody Nickell, who has appeared on this stage and others with his spouse, Norris, and with Twyford on many happy occasions, brings his usual fluency to the double-dealing Earl of Leicester, a man who enjoyed extraordinary intimacy with the virgin queen. New face Paul-Emile Cendron is convincingly hot-blooded as Mortimer, a conspirator who dismisses the more timid Leicester as “addicted to his own existence.” Nancy Robinette plays the faithful nurse who tries to comfort Mary in captivity. As Sir William Davison, a sacrificial functionary to whom Elizabeth gives intentionally confounding orders regarding Mary’s fate, Todd Scofield elicits pity for a character we’ve barely met. And Craig Wallace has his usual gravitas as the Earl of Shrewsbury, a veteran advisor who seems genuinely surprised to learn he can no longer surf the tide of a despot’s whim. “I lack the necessary flexibility,” he says sadly. Here’s a political thriller that bends for nobody.
511 10th St. NW. $33.90-$72.30. (202) 347-4833. fordstheatre.org
201 East Capitol St. SE. $40-$75. (202) 544-4600. folger.edu