The Carriage House Theater at Bell Court is just a short way from where a young Mary Todd spent the privileged years of her childhood before moving to Springfield, Ill., and sealing her fate as the wife of one of the most celebrated presidents in U.S. history.
Mary Todd Lincoln's Lexington roots are no secret to Central Kentuckians. But details of her post-Lexington life remain enigmatic to non-historians. Even after 150 years to set records of public opinion straight, she is widely regarded simplistically as the peculiar first lady who went a little nutty.
But as we learn from Studio Players' latest offering, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln by James Prideaux, Mary's life after her husband's death was marred by tragedy, grief and continuous struggles against bankruptcy, the U.S. Senate (which refused for years to grant her a widow's pension) and a vicious public perception that drove her to exile.
Veteran actor Paul Thomas trades the spotlight for the director's chair to haunting effect in this fascinating tale of one of the most consistently maligned figures in U.S. history. The play is likely to impress history buffs, with Prideaux's deeply researched script, Bob Kinstle's versatile 19th-century set design, and tag-team period costumers Libby Adkins, Ellen Hellard, Janet Kinstle and Sarah Kelly.
However educational, the play's greatest achievement is its artistic merit, which can be summed up in two words: Martha Campbell.
Her inspired portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln nears masterpiece as she navigates Mary's extreme highs and lows with deft agility and nuance. What's more, as each scene unravels, we begin to care less about the history books and more about Mary herself. Bright, gracious, charming, spirited and bitingly witty, Campbell's Mary is little like the morose public caricature of Mrs. Lincoln. Her Mary is a visionary, a dreamer, a stalwart of causes, a pillar of strength that briefly collapses when it has nothing to lean on or uphold. Expertly crafting a gentle Southern lilt, Campbell gives Mary a heart and soul.
A moving scene occurs in the second act, when Mary is writing a letter to a dear friend. As an elderly woman in exile in the Pyrenees, she poignantly writes of trying to escape infamy by being "nowhere," and confesses that her attitude for life has become defined by waiting for death. Although the character of Abraham does not appear in the play, his influence is felt, particularly in Mary's final years, when she longs to join him. The result is a deep sympathy for Mary without over-sentimentalism.
The supporting cast also delivers solid performances. Walter Eng's role as Robert, Mary and Abraham's last surviving son and the man who tried to have Mary committed, is a study in Lincoln family dynamics.
Thomas deserves praise for a careful and moving production that deeply probes the psyche of one of Lexington's most famous natives.