World premiere looks at Lincoln’s widow
Washington loves a good mystery — something with hidden intrigues and with rich human drama and danger — especially in the ultimate high-stakes setting of the White House.
There’s one real-life Washington mystery that has been shrouded for 150 years, not in secrecy but indifference, perhaps. What happened to Mary Todd Lincoln in the 40 days after her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated the night of April 15, 1865?
She was in the White House, reeling with grief. We know that much. But most do not know that she locked herself in a room and remained mostly alone for 40 long days. Most accounts stop when she enters the room, and pick up her story 41 days later.
But what happened within that shuttered space? Was it a refuge? Or a prison? Was she insane or just drenched in sorrow, unable to function in the world?
Is this a mere footnote to the horrendous rending of America’s spirit in 1865, or something more meaningful? And what does it tell us about Mrs. Lincoln and, by extension, about her husband, whom we think we know?
Finding Mrs. Lincoln
Many questions, few answers. A good mystery needs a good detective, and Ford’s Theatre has one with playwright James Still.
He has writtenThe Widow Lincoln, unlocking the door to that room, opening the shutters and casting light into the darkness there. Ford’s commissioned this world premiere as part of Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination — a series of events marking the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln’s last night.
Author Still, nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize, is familiar to Ford’s audiences. His play The Heavens Are Hung in Black reopened the theatre after its extensive renovations in 2009, and his Looking Over the President’s Shoulder was part of Ford’s 2003-2004 season.
The Los Angeles-based playwright has seen his work performed throughout North America, Europe, Australia, Japan, China and South Africa. He is reunited here with familiar Ford’s director Stephen Rayne, who staged The Heavens Are Hung in Black.
The Widow Lincoln opens on Jan. 23.
“I’m not a historian,” Still said. “I’m an artist, a writer. And this is an excavation, a dig into what might have been. I did start rooting around thinking, well, surely this has been written about, and people have been trying to figure this out. And I never found it.”
Even Mrs. Lincoln, in her later life, offered scant insight into the 40 days, as if she retained no clear memory. There is one letter, however, and our detective/playwright found it in the hands of a collector of Lincoln memorabilia in Los Angeles, where he lives.
“I didn’t come across it until I had written at least two drafts of the play, and I was relieved to read what she wrote because it felt like I had at least gone down a path that rang true, how Mary wrote about it,” Still explained during rehearsals in late December. “It was like a little bit of permission for me.”
Melding fact with fiction
So, is this historical fiction or fictional history? Is it a docu-drama? We know it isn’t pure history because there were few witnesses and little record of what transpired.
This is where he finally lands when grappling with the question: “It’s kind of an opera that isn’t sung, is how I look at it, because of its theatricality and its deep study of this character — the way a great opera can be so revealing about a character,” he said.
The theatricality. Still weaves in several real-life figures connected to the event, including Mrs. Lincoln’s maid and confidante Elizabeth Keckley, and the actress Laura Keane, who was onstage when Lincoln was shot, and whose life and career were permanently affected. He also wrote a scene featuring Queen Victoria, who actually sent a letter to Mrs. Lincoln.
There is a slightly surreal swirl of theatricality, with a choral motif and a stylized set. The setting features barriers of packing cases and trunks, a signal to the audience of Mrs. Lincoln’s distress at embarking on a post-White House life that was not what she and her husband had longed for.
The choral motif has its roots in Still’s detective work, as he followed the path his research created for him, using it to inspire as much as inform.
“One of the attending doctors in the Peterson House [across the street from Ford’s] during the night of Lincoln’s death kept a record of Lincoln’s pulse at various times. Just what it was, 68 or 99, whatever,” he recounted. “And just reading that list was so moving to me. And that became a kind of choral piece in the play, in a way.”
A “Greek chorus of widows,” as he describes it, keeps Mary company in the room, intoning the pulse readings at times, moving the audience closer to inexorable loss.
“It’s kind of shocking. It’s how Mary relived his dying moments, how she re-lived that night in the Peterson House. It’s also about how she was kept out of that room most of the time. I never would have imagined that, if my research hadn’t taken me to that document.”
Tiny fragments of history, crafted into a narrative that helps us feel what it was like, helps us understand the real-life woman behind the strident, demanding image that has persisted through the years. For Still, it is all vivid and alive.
“Her resentment at not being allowed to be at her husband’s side, especially in the last moments, the feeling she was robbed of that right, if you will, that collides with his pulse, and not having a pulse. That is something that really moved me,” he said, his voice thickening slightly with emotion.
But this is Ford’s Theatre, sacred ground, and this is Washington, D.C. — less sacred, certainly, and with countless long knives about.
Still knows his work will be dissected by history buffs and scholars as if it is a treatise and not a drama. His goal is to present the experience of the event, not a recitation of inert facts. Yet the dramatist has had to become a history detective.
“To know as much as I can know, so at least if I decide to depart from the actual facts, I know that I’m doing that, that I have my reasons as a dramatist for doing that,” he stated firmly. “I’m absorbing facts, but I’m also looking at what makes my heart race when I come across something.”
And that is how audiences, hearts racing or not, will ultimately judge his look into the room behind that locked door, upstairs at the White House, long, long ago.
Show times and discussions
The Widow Lincoln runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 22 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, Washington, D.C. It is recommended for ages 12 and older, due to its complex language and ideas.
Show times: Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. (no Sunday evening performances in Feb.); Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (except Jan. 24 and 25); noon matinee on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Ticket prices for the play range from $15 to $62. Discounted matinee tickets are available for patrons 60 and over ($31 for weekdays, $34 for weekends).
There will be audio-described performances on Tuesday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. A captioned performance is scheduled for Saturday, Feb.21, at 2 p.m. A sign-interpreted performance will occur Thursday, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m.
Following the 7:30 p.m. performance Thursday, Jan. 29, audience members can talk with each other and with playwright James Still at a Meet and Mingle event. This free event takes place at the restaurant Bistro D’Oc, located across the street from Ford’s Theatre, at 518 10th St. NW. A cash bar will be available.
Tickets are available at www.fords.org and Ticketmaster: 1-800-982-2787.
Ford’s Theatre is accessible to persons with disabilities, offering wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, and audio enhancement.
For more information, call (202) 347-4833 or visit www.fords.org.