It is always a plus when an evening at the theater is both entertaining and informative. Such was the case last night when I attended the Bad Habit Productions' World Premiere of "How Soft The Lining - The Extraordinary Friendship of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly" by Kirsten Greenidge. Ms. Greenidge is an Obie Award winning playwright who teaches at BU. Boston audiences are familiar with her play "Milk Like Sugar" that was produced by the Huntington Theatre Company earlier this year.
|Playwright Kirsten Greenidge|
The play stitches together several scenes that tell the story of the intricate relationship that developed between FLOTUS Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, the woman who became her dress maker during her tumultuous White House years. Mrs. Keckly was a former slave who had moved from Missouri to Washington, D.C., and had established her own dress shop - an extraordinary achievement for a woman of color in the 1860s.
This well-conceived production is directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, and she steers a fine ensemble cast through a story that includes several flashbacks with actors playing multiple roles. Anchoring the action are Bridgette Hayes as Mrs. Lincoln and Elle Borders as Mrs. Keckly. Their relationship is multi-dimensional and complex, and the playwright examine every thread of the fabric of their friendship. Ms. Hayes plays the troubled First Lady in sometimes hysterical tones, befitting what history tells us about Mrs. Lincoln's tempestuous temperament. After a rocky beginning to their relationship when Ms. Keckly delivers a dress later than she had promised, the two women developed what Mary felt was a true friendship, but Elizabeth understood it to be lacking in some important dimensions. As the action progresses, the soft and silky lining of their comradeship is torn asunder when Mrs. Lincoln learns of her dressmaker's plans to publish a book chronicling her days as a slave and as dressmaker to the President's wife. Ms. Borders is excellent in showing Elizabeth walking a fine tightrope between being appropriately obsequious to the First Lady and standing on her own feet as a free woman of business. These are two powerful performances on the part of act these fine actors. Their bond is palpable, even when the seams of their friendship are strained.
|Elle Borders as Elizabeth Keckly|
Bridgette Hayes as Mary Todd Lincoln
"How Soft The Lining" by Kirsten Greenidge
Bad Habit Productions
Boston Center for the Arts
Through November 20th
Photo: Paul Cantillon, Litephoto.com
Jade Guerra is also outstanding in several roles, including the mother of young Elizabeth in one flashback, and as the slave who has recently run away to Washington, D.C. and is begging Elizabeth to employ her. Margaret Clark is strong and steady as Mary's sister, trying to be a steadying keel when Mary threatens to capsize herself in one of her gales of temper and self-pity. Gabriel Graetz brings a soft interpretation to Mr. Lincoln as father to Tad and Willie: "Let them play," he proclaims as they run roughshod through the White House. Boys will be boys. The always reliable Lizzie Milanovich has fun portraying the rambunctious Tad. In his second professional role, Kaya Simmons is versatile as Willie, the Lincoln son who died during the family's White House years, and as Elizabeth's light skinned son, who passed as white, enlisted in the Union Army, and died in battle..
For the most part, the structure of the play with multiple flashbacks works and it is usually clear to the audience when the action is flashing back to a previous time or event. One exception is a scene in which young Mary Todd is in conflict with her hated stepmother, a role played by Mr. Graetz, complete with his Lincoln beard. It did not help that there was a minor wardrobe malfunction, and his/her shawl was snagged on a prop and carried away, leaving this hirsute man unadorned and trying to pass as a woman. I was not able to suspend disbelief. I am not sure if this particular double casting was mandated by the playwright, or by the usually steady Ms. O'Gara, but it was a hiccup in an otherwise smooth performance.
Costumes are by Kathryn Schondek, Lighting by P J Strachman, Sound by Andrew Duncan, and Scenic Design by Rebecca Lehrhoff.
The play is worthy of your attention, and can be seen in the Roberts Studio at the Calderwood Pavilion of the BCA through November 20th.
Bad Habit Productions Website