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Mary Todd ... A Woman Apart

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In one sense little has changed in the 140 or so years since Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States and his wife the first lady; public figures are revered one moment and vilified the next, their every action or word open to the slightest scrutiny. That seems to be the primary lesson of Mary Todd ... A Woman Apart, Carl Wallnau III's play about Mary Todd Lincoln: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mrs. Lincoln could easily be anyone torn apart by the court of public opinion. Tormented by her ungrateful son and an unsympathetic media as interested in present downfall as her past triumphs, she's been institutionalized in the Bellevue Place Sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois, where, ten years after her husband's death, she's still facing demons from within and without.

She's tormented by the memories of the fateful night in Ford's Theatre when her husband was assassinated, she's overjoyed by the recollections of the more positive times in her life, and she passes the time - for herself and for us - with frequently comic impersonations of many of the colorful characters she's come across over the course of her nearly 60 years. Moments bleed into each other, the past and the present are interchangeable, and the depths of her mind are no less (or more) real than the room (Gordon Daniele's set, lit occasionally too hyperactively by Edward Matthews) in which she spends her days.

Though Wallnau - who also directed the production - declines to tackle directly the question of Mrs. Lincoln's sanity, this device remains his bravest choice, one that provides the audience with a fair amount of information to make up its own mind. It also allows an expansive dramatic geography and colorful cast of characters that logically could not exist within the confines of the real world Mrs. Lincoln inhabits, and provides the actress playing Lincoln (the author's wife, Colleen Smith Wallnau) with a host of performing challenges to conquer with, theoretically, tremendous benefits for the audience.

It works to a degree, giving the actress plenty of opportunities to exercise her fine comic and dramatic skills. Though as a storytelling device, it grows wearying as the play progresses; author Wallnau tends to rely on it too much, featuring a large number of supporting characters that threaten to steal Mrs. Lincoln's spotlight, as well as throwing in nearly every event of her life for her to address. As the play approaches its end, it feels like a history lesson being taught about Mrs. Lincoln instead of one being taught by Mrs. Lincoln; the former is far less theatrical than the latter.

But, when the focus is on Mrs. Lincoln, not even Edward Matthews's hyperactive lights can prevent some fine, affecting theatre from resulting. Taking on a charming, lilting southern voice and manners appearing simultaneously rustic and urban, Mrs. Wallnau gives a sharp yet homey performance perfectly befitting a woman on the edge. When the play really works, it's because she's working overtime; the same material in another performer's hand, even an experienced one, might find a less acceptable portrayal.

After all, as director Wallnau states in his director's notes at the end, he wrote the play as a present for his wife. "You can judge whether a piece of jewelry would have sufficed," he writes, suggesting there isn't a faceted gleam to be found in Mary Todd ... A Woman Apart. There is, but it's not an unflawed one. Both Wallnaus do admirable work here, but could stand to remember that a vital aspect of any one-woman play is letting the subject speak for herself.

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Centenary Stage Company
Mary Todd ... A Woman Apart
Through May 17
Samuel Beckett Theatre, 407 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: Ticket Central 212.279.4200
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission