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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Mary T. & Lizzy K.


Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and
Naomi Jacobson

Naomi Jackson's glittering performance as the mercurial Mary Todd Lincoln is what makes Mary T. & Lizzy K., the biographical meditation now at Arena Stage's Kogod Cradle in Washington, worth watching. The work probably wouldn't be nearly as affecting or involving without her: playwright and director Tazewell Thompson has created less of a drama (in the sense of linear movement) and more of a circular examination on the legacy of two extraordinary women in a difficult historical moment.

On Donald Eastman's set with its high, barred windows and heaps of discarded furniture, Mary is first seen in the drab, loose dress worn by patients at the mental hospital where she is being held. But she isn't alone: Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), a well-appointed African-American woman, and her assistant Ivy (Joy Jones) have come to fit her for a new gown. Eventually, Mary's rawboned husband Abe (Thomas Adrian Simpson) appears as well.

The historical record shows a rare and deep friendship between the woman who insisted on being called "Mrs. President" and the seamstress born in slavery who bought her own freedom. Thompson's script places the two women under a microscope, viewing their interdependence at certain crisis points—both women lost sons, for example. The majority of the 100-minute run time (no intermission) centers around that night in 1865 when the Lincolns decide to go to Ford's Theatre to see a play.

Jacobson's portrayal is both autocratic and pitiful, a woman who feels her life slipping away and is determined to hang on as tightly as she can. (When asked about her plans after the end of her husband's term, Mary states: "We're not leaving the White House, ever.") Mary Todd Lincoln was ridiculed in her own time as a spendthrift oblivious to the needs of other people, but Thompson seems to present that as the only way she could cope with the war and death around her.

Luqmaan-Harris, in contrast, plays Elizabeth (or Lizzy) as steel-spined and serious. She's proud of her hand-sewn and individually fitted dresses, but she's also clear-eyed enough to know when she isn't getting paid for her work. When she rhapsodizes, it's about shifting silhouettes and the effort that goes into every stitch. Costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh incorporates a bit of magic: After Mary stands while Lizzy and Ivy assemble pieces of a dress in white muslin, she goes offstage and reappears in the same gown rendered in a sumptuous brocade.

Simpson presents a wry, self-effacing Abraham Lincoln who loves Mary but can't always deal with her emotional storms. Jones is fine, but the viewer wonders why Thompson stepped away from his protagonists to create an out-of-nowhere scene for this (probably fictional) character.

Arena Stage
Mary T. & Lizzy K.
March 15th - April 28th
Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson
Mary Todd Lincoln: Naomi Jacobson
Elizabeth Keckly: Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris
Ivy: Joy Jones
Abraham Lincoln: Thomas Adrian Simpson
Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo by Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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