It’s hard to imagine in these days of cheaply manufactured clothes that there was once a time when getting a new outfit was a laborious and artistic process. Only in the worlds of high fashion or in the theater is the art of dressmaking still practiced to that level (and even there, machines have almost eradicated the particular craft of hand sewing). In the prudish Victorian era, no one knew your body more intimately than your dressmaker, from the crafting of a muslin mock-up perfectly fitted to your body to the execution of a dress that suited you alone.
Giving yourself that intimately to another person requires absolute trust, and that ultimately is the subject of Tazewell Thompson’s new play Mary T. & Lizzy K. The world premiere of a work commissioned between Thompson and Arena Stage, as the first production of Arena Stage’s American President’s Project its primary subject is the relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln (Naomi Jacobson) and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris). It can’t entirely escape the long shadow of the president, but it attempts to give two women who both suffered from marginalization (in two very different ways) their due.
It’s both gorgeously written and acted with a cool intellectualism that counterpoints the deep emotions that permeate any work to do with the Lincolns. Though the overall conceit – a prelude to that dreadful assassination night at Ford’s Theatre – may feel contrived, so indeed is a beautiful dress.
“Meticulous. Is my brand. My middle name,” freed slave Elizabeth (Lizzy) Keckly states authoritatively. A talented dressmaker, she’s determined through her craft to make the wife of the American president the fashion equal of the Empress Eugenie. Which is to say, to make America the equal of Europe, and more importantly, to make former slaves the equals of their former masters. The pride the two women share is intense, and their ambition is their common thread.
Thompson calls this play “a work of the imagination,” and it meanders from Mary’s haunting institutionalization to Lizzy’s creation of the dress to be worn at Ford’s, and back again. Even with the inclusion of the stories of Lizzy and her assistant Ivy, the audience can’t escape the familiarity of the Lincolns. That makes the beauty of Thompson’s language the necessary star.
Moments such as Lincoln meeting Mary for the first time (“I was the inexpressive he. Parched.”) or Lizzy’s assistant Ivy (Joy Jones) remembering a brutal rape, are potent both in the execution by strong actors and in the exquisite phrasing. It’s a powerful acting quartet – Jacobson, Luqmaan-Harris, Jones, and Simpson all deliver. Jones in particular is especially moving as the assistant who will rise above adversity, and she captures the rhythm of Thompson’s script perfectly.
The characters struggle with intimacy, betrayal, loss and love as the dress is molded from muslin to gold. The Lincolns continually revisit the tortured path they took to become husband and wife, their love haunted by the death of their son, Lincoln’s intimacy issues, and Mary’s mental health. Mary and Lizzy’s alliance is just as delicate, as continually threatened as Lizzy and Joy’s is by the underlying dynamic of proper payment for work. Debts both emotional and practical, as well as the evil of past slavery, haunt all of them.
In the end, it’s the remembrance of glory that remains – as when Mary and Lizzy’s words intertwine as they recall with shared reverence a jewelry collection. The production design rightly gives the costumes the main focus, and Merrily Murray-Walsh’s creations are the key – note how each character’s clothes are the clues to their essential selves.
Clothes protect and shield the self. They are “loyal,” as Mary says. Mary T. & Lizzy K. is more than just a re-imagining of the world of the Lincolns – it’s a beautifully poetic work exploring the nature of intimacy, and relationship dances of complex power.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. performs through April 28 in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th Street SW, Washington DC 20024. Closest Metro stop: Waterfront (Green line). Tickets $40-85. For more information call 202-488-3300.