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"The Widow Lincoln" Explores the Grief of a First Lady

The world-premiere play at Ford's Theatre offers a new perspective on the Civil War's most famous spouse.

Mary Bacon as Mary Todd Lincoln in The Widow Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Photograph by Scott Suchman

America has never quite made up its mind about Mary Todd Lincoln. Honest Abe was a hero. His wife, on the other hand, has been variously accused of being bipolar, overly decadent, a Confederate supporter, and a rube. January 23 through February 22, Ford’s Theatre offers a fresh perspective on the Civil War’s most famous spouse with the world premiere of The Widow Lincoln, written by James Still and directed by Stephen Rayne.

The two first collaborated in 2009 on Ford’s The Heavens Are Hung in Black, about the President during the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Rayne says he and Still had always planned a follow-up, which evolved into the story of Lincoln’s widow, whom Rayne sees as “one of the most maligned and misrepresented women in history.”

The play—featuring an all-female cast—stretches across a 40-day period after Lincoln’s assassination in which Mary shut herself in a room in the White House and refused the company of all but a trusted few. Still’s work, while based in fact, isn’t a retelling of history but, Rayne says, “an imagining of what occurred psychologically during that period and what happened that ultimately led to her being able to leave the room.”

It might seem counterintuitive for a drama about a woman’s innermost thoughts to come from two men, but Rayne says his and Still’s perspectives provided a good balance; workshopping the play with women scholars and actors also helped. And though Widow chronicles a devastating period in Mrs. Lincoln’s life, it also reflects that “she was an extremely ebullient, lively, intelligent, witty woman,” says Rayne.

Ultimately, the director thinks focusing on Mary Todd Lincoln helps paint a richer portrait of the former President. “His wife was the person who grieved him the most on a personal level,” he says. The Widow Lincoln will, he hopes, help audiences “understand him better through understanding her.”

Tickets ($15 to $62) are available through Ford’s Theatre’s website.