In the odd, zeitgeisty way in which cultural depictions of certain subjects seem to come along like buses (nothing for decades and then three at once), Elizabeth Keckly is very much alive again—seen portrayed by Gloria Reuben in last year's Lincoln, and as the subject of a recent book by Jennifer Chiaverini. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a more intriguing, nuanced portrayal of Keckly than the one Tazewell Thompson has crafted in Mary T. & Lizzy K., his world premiere play currently at Arena Stage. Immaculate in a gown of bronze patterned silk, and ferocious as she crafts a dress around the First Lady, Thompson’s Keckley (played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is one of the most riveting female characters seen all season.
The nature of the close friendship between the spoiled Mary Todd Lincoln (Naomi Jacobson) and her black dressmaker, who worked and trained to buy her own way out of slavery, might seem tailor-made for schmaltz, but Mary T. & Lizzy K. is nothing of the sort. Thompson, who also directs, seems fascinated by the dynamic of the relationship between the two, and the way power ebbs and flows in their interactions. At the play's opening, Mary is in a wraithlike grey smock, recalling elements of her life with all the cogency of a Bouvier Beale and railing at Lizzy for betraying her confidence by writing a book about their relationship. Her husband, she tells Lizzy, is “assassinated all over again every time someone buys a copy.”
Time suddenly flips back, and Lizzy is fitting Mary for a dress and issuing staccato instructions with the poise of a sergeant-major, assisted by Ivy (Joy Jones), a Caribbean assistant who wears an eyepatch. In contrast with Jacobson’s fidgety, fussy physicality, Luqmaan-Harris is a model of self-composure, her spine ramrod-straight, her features barely twitching. The First Lady, or Mrs. President, as she petulantly demands people call her, recalls stories about her mother and asks Lizzy about hers. “I had one,” the dressmaker replies, neutrally. “She gave birth to me. Raised me. They took her from me. Sold her.” Mary, without pausing to acknowledge this statement, moves on.
Thompson's language is wrenchingly poetic, whether it’s Lizzy describing “the remembered vaporous fragrance of your favorite perfume,” or Ivy telling Mary about the heartbreaking way she lost her eye. But it’s the sheer volume of things he manages to accomplish in 90 minutes that makes Mary T. and Lizzy K. so fascinating. There’s the grim, elegant foreshadowing as Lincoln (Thomas Adrian-Simpson) comes in to discuss their box at Ford’s Theatre that night, and the hysterical frailty of Mary’s mental state as she describes feeling like she’s “rotting in this rat-infested ice cube of a castle.” There’s the way Thompson subtly hints at our present in Mary’s scolding of her husband for training a generation of young men to “fall in love with killing,” and her quiet statement after his death that “it’s only a matter of time, they say, until we have another.”
Donald Eastman’s set is both vast and cloying, with high, whitewashed walls, a chandelier seen resting on the floor at the back of the stage, and a messy pile of trunks and packing cases tumbled together on one side, as if visualizing the state of flux both Mary and Lizzy found themselves in for much of their lives. The costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh are perfect—Lizzy’s clothes reflect the attention to detail and fanatical pride she takes in her work, but also the significance of her dresses as a trade and a road to independence. She and Ivy craft a dress around Mary for much of the first half of the play, pinning pleats into cotton and fixing sleeves, while Ivy later delivers an extraordinary speech about the power of clothes: "Paid to me. Earned by me.”
All four actors give outstanding performances. Jacobson is capricious and thoroughly unlikable as Mary Todd Lincoln, fluttering around the stage with the nervous anxiety of a basket case but with a cruel capacity to wound. As her husband, Simpson is the opposite—charming, jocular, endlessly sympathetic—and unrecognizable from his role as Pickering in My Fair Lady last year. Jones, as Ivy, is extraordinary, and her character pounces from nowhere to offer one of the most remarkable volte-faces of the play.
But it's Luqmaan-Harris’s Keckly, and her magnetic ability to occupy the stage with much less to say than the garrulous Mary or the emotional Ivy, who lingers. Her own personal tragedies are no less weighty or burdensome than either of theirs, but her iron tenacity and determination are striking. It takes quite a talent to make one of America's greatest heroes a supporting character, but Thompson’s three women are fascinating enough to eclipse even Lincoln himself.
Mary T & Lizzy K. is at Arena Stage through April 28. Running time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Arena’s website.