The historical debate over Mary Todd Lincoln tends to revolve around one burning question: How crazy was she? Then again, how many women have seen their husband get assassinated and watched three of their sons die?
Sally Field’s performance in the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln is the latest and most sympathetic portrayal of Mary Todd, but it’s a far cry from the version audiences will see in Park Square Theatre’s Mary T. & Lizzie K., a play by Tazewell Thompson about the unlikely friendship between Mary Todd and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly.
At Park Square, Linda Kelsey will play Mary Todd. But Kelsey doesn’t think it’s fair to compare her performance to Sally Field’s, because the play presents a much more complex, nuanced version of the first lady—one that begins as she dresses for that fateful evening at Ford Theatre and encompasses the grief that led to her being institutionalized years later.
“What happened to her after the assassination was shameful,” says Kelsey.
The asylum her son committed her to was “a real snake pit,” she says. “I think she was suffering from PTSD, from seeing her husband shot in front of her.”
Shá Cage plays Keckly, a freed slave who wrote a tell-all book about the Lincoln White House, Behind the Scenes, which is still in print. In real life, the book created a schism between the two and they never spoke again—but playwright Tazewell Thompson imagines Keckly visiting Lincoln in the asylum and juxtaposes that visit with events on the evening of the assassination.
Thompson may be remembered for his play Constant Star, a biography of journalist and early civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. “He loves Mary,” Kelsey says. “It’s clear from the writing. He loves both women. His writing is poetically beautiful.” Oct. 18–Nov. 10. Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul, 651-291-7005, parksquaretheatre.org