War of the Poses: A dress fitting offers a window into the Lincolns marriage. marriage.
War of the Poses: A dress fitting offers a window into the Lincolns marriage. marriage.

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Abraham Lincoln is a shoulders man. Not a breasts man or a legs man—not in Tazewell Thompson’s Mary T. & Lizzy K., anyway—but one who gets excited at the sight of creamy rounded joints emerging from a lacy bodice. “My wife has the most beautiful shoulders in all of Washington,” the 16th president boasts midway through this world premiere drama at Arena Stage. His wife is being fitted for a dress, and the president is more interested in body parts than fabric swatches.

Mary T. & Lizzy K. is nominally about the relationship between the clotheshorse first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, and her dutiful seamstress, a freedwoman named Elizabeth Keckly—who somehow, of the four characters in the show, ends up feeling the least relevant. Local actress Naomi Jacobson intriguingly portrays the first lady as bipolar, gaily laughing in one scene and lashing out in the next. Yet it’s Thomas Adrian Simpson, as Abraham Lincoln, as well as an additional supporting figure, who emerge as the most memorable characters in this episodic play about unstable Washington relationships, circa April of 1865.

Several years ago, Arena Stage commissioned the script from Thompson, a notable African-American writer and director, and originally slated it to debut last June. When announcing plans in November 2011 to postpone the premiere, the theater blamed cuts to a federal program. In her program notes, however, artistic director Molly Smith seems to indicate revisions were a factor, saying plays “need to bake in an oven,” rather than be “zapped in a microwave.”

But like a frozen dinner, Mary T. and Lizzy K. seems underdone in the middle and tough around the edges. Or, setting aside the food metaphors: Thompson needs a stronger editor. The show opens with Mary Todd delivering a monologue in an asylum. She was involuntarily committed in 1875 by her only surviving son, but there’s not a lot of exposition in the script, so the more you come into the theater knowing about the Lincolns, the better. The sets (by Donald Eastman) indicate this is a memory play, with stacks of steamer trunks, broken cradles, and dusty wardrobes stacked up at stage right. Elizabeth (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) comes to “visit” Mary Todd in the asylum, and the action then wafts to the White House, where on one fateful Good Friday, Mary Todd cajoles her husband into going to the theater.

Far from illuminating the relationship of Mary and Elizabeth, the deconstructed narrative emphasizes the Lincolns’ marriage. Also taking the focus off Mary and Lizzy: the intriguing character arc of Elizabeth’s assistant, a former Jamaican slave named Ivy. The play is never more riveting than when Joy Jones delivers a long, visceral monologue about being raped and dismembered by a plantation owner. “He mash me. Down to the ground. His whole body on top of me,” she moans. By the end, both Jones and her character have the upper hand over Luqmaan-Harris and hers.

Simpson, meanwhile, depicts Lincoln as an affable hayseed. He’s entertaining but rather upbeat for a president who just survived the Civil War, and his lively exchanges with Jacobson—including one that finds him cradling her with a mixture of love and fear—overshadow the perfunctory dressmaking dialogue for Jacobson and Luqmaan-Harris. There’s humor throughout, but Thompson overloads the script with drama-geek lines like, “They say once the show starts showing, the show must keep going.”

No doubt Thompson was relieved to see his show finally showing after years of researching, writing, and revising. But just as Mary Todd never settled her dressmaking accounts with Elizabeth Keckly, Mary T. & Lizzy K. is an attractive production that never pays off in full.