‘Widow’ at Ford’s: the Grief of Mary Todd Lincoln

“The Widow Lincoln,” a world premiere of the new play by Stephen Sill at Ford’s Theater, presents to the audience Mary Todd Lincoln in a lone room, surrounded by giant stacks of baggage and luggage, by ghosts, and memories in the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, time abruptly stopped, the future unknown.

The new play is part of “Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination,” a series of events marking the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre in 1865.

“The Widow Lincoln” is a difficult play about a difficult person. The Kentucky-born Mary Todd Lincoln was reviled in the South where she was considered a traitor, not trusted in the North because of her Southern background and criticized in the press and among the city’s social gossips for her spending large sums on outfitting the White House and herself. She was considered an outsider, a Lady Macbeth figure by some. She was, it would appear, ill-prepared for the cloudy role and standing of first lady, but she embraced it dramatically in a way not seen since Dolly Madison. She had few friends, with the exception of the passion of her life, whom she still refers to as Mr. Lincoln or “father.” She was also close to the Elizabeth Kackley, her dressmaker and a former slave.

Mrs. Lincoln was even less prepared for the role of national widow—it was as if a chasm had opened beneath her feet, with the past out of reach, the present tumultuous and the future unknowable.

New York actress Mary Bacon portrays a Mary who is bewildered, keen and heavy with grief, angry, at turns charming and blustering, the White Houses bully. Her grief is enormous, all the more so because it is chaotic and full of a gigantic confusion.

Bacon doesn’t pretty up Mary. She avoids pulling at any sort of strings, heart or otherwise. She doesn’t sentimentalize. Bacon’s widow is a monument to grief’s pain and confusion and its willfullness, too. She speaks to the audience—to us—often, always in the tone of a question, as if we could lead her out of the wilderness.

Mary Todd Lincoln spent 40 days in a locked room in the aftermath of the assassination, attended by Keckley, a servant girl and a guard, who, it turns out, has a secret. She wears black, but does not attend her husband’s funeral—she gets news of the progression of the body and coffin as it travels, mournfully, watched by hundreds of thousands of people in Harrisburg, New York , Albany, Philadelphia, Chicago and Springfield, where Lincoln’s body still rests outside town.

An unseen commentator provides a kind of narrative from newspaper reports—how “negroes were not allowed to attend the proceedings in New York” and how thousands turned out in heavy rains along the way.

Mary is watched over by shadows, ghosts of families who have lost people in the war, ghosts of slaves. Laura Keene, the actress and star of “Our American Cousin” commiserates with Mary and paints a portrait of the hard life of an actress. There is a séance, there is a strange conversation with the guard and there is an appearance by Queen Victoria, who gives Mary advice about grief.

There is, in short, a kind of life on stage, where Mary, all the while sometimes raging against Andrew Johnson, against the Washington tribe which criticized her, avoids leaving the room until she must.

She is, it’s plain to see, avoiding a future as the widow, one that history tells us was painful, difficult, life as a lonely woman often fending off bouts of melancholy and near-madness.

Bacon is the standout here. She is ably abetted by Sarah Marshall as Queen Victoria, Caroline Clay, who gives Keckley a vibrant, down-to-earth energy and Kimberly Schraf as Laura Keene in full theatrical regalia.

This is one of those times in the theater—this theater—where you pay attention to your surroundings. You see audience members at intermission taking selfies, with the empty presidential, flag-draped Lincoln box above the main floor. With this play, the setting becomes poignant, ghostly, and you think at times that you can hearing voices from another time.


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