With actress Naomi Jacobson perched on a stand as she’s fitted for a gown in Arena Stage’s “Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” an audience learns what’s in and what’s out in mid-19th-century haute couture. Out, explains Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), are the wide, pagoda-shaped undergarments that cleared a woman’s path like the cowcatcher of a freight train. “In” is the sleeker boning of the “crinoline cage,” a style the fashionable but not entirely fashion-forward Mary T. is being talked into by Lizzy K.
It’s the kind of detail that illuminates the margins of history, and in the meticulous costume designs of Merrily Murray-Walsh, gives dramatist-director Tazewell Thompson’s work, in its world premiere in Arena’s Cradle, a galvanizing look. The clothing, however, turns out to be the best-dressed facet of “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” While at this stage of the play’s development the patterns seem to have been cut and the muslin pinned to the dress form, a lot of the stitching still needs to be done.
More a series of intriguing scene studies than a drama with a satisfactorily integrated structure, “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” concerns itself with the advantage Mary T. takes of Lizzy K., a freed slave who makes the first lady’s elaborate outfits but never gets paid for them. The action is set partly in the evening on which Mrs. Lincoln and the president, here portrayed by Thomas Adrian Simpson, prepare for their catastrophic visit to Ford’s Theatre. At other times, the play segues to Mrs. Lincoln’s widowhood, locating her in an asylum, where in her bottomless grief she rails against Keckly for having written a book about her White House experiences.
“What is this need to know, to dig, to hunt? My life is not yours to excavate!” Jacobson’s agitated Mary T. declares indignantly, as Luqmaan-Harris’s stoic Lizzy K. tries to explain her desperate need to make some money. Their argument, touching on betrayal, the compact between them and their mutual, if unequal, dependence, has a modern ring to it. In his own fanciful take on their relationship, the playwright, though, fails to construct it in a way that compels us to a richer investigation of what’s really going on between them.
Thompson, whose directorial history with Arena includes excellent revivals of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” has proved time and again his value to the company. Still, this may be one of those cases in which the playwright would be better served by another director, for no other reason than that a pair of objective eyes might have helped him home in more clearly on the core of his story.
The diffuse scenes of “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” suggest in a poetic way how bound by thread are Keckly and the Lincolns: As Simpson’s Abe observes, the “little blue suit” Elizabeth made for their son Willie was the one in which he was buried. Fashion is, in fact, a calling card for each of these women, Thompson asserts; for Mary, it connotes order, status, celebrity. Her resistance to Lizzy’s newer styles reflects a desire for stability, for life to remain as it is. Mary’s joking remark, repeated at least twice in the play, is that she and her husband have no intention of ever leaving the White House. It proves ghoulishly ironic.
What Mary refuses to see, though, is that for Lizzy, fashion is both less and more meaningful. It’s the lifeline out of penury and the degrading circumstances her people have endured. Thompson supplies a third character, Ivy (Joy Jones), a Jamaican dressmaker’s assistant with her own history of suffering, who is tougher than Mary and more determined than Lizzy.
Jacobson, who took over the role of Mary after Kathryn Kelly withdrew during rehearsals, conveys the darkening willfulness in Mary’s nature, and in the confrontation over Lizzy’s capitalizing on their association, gets juicily at Mary’s streak of arrogance. As Keckly, Luqmaan-Harris is underused; relegated for long stretches to a chair on Donald Eastman’s abstracted set of old suitcases and other debris, she is seen to us in profile — and remains a fairly cold profile, at that.
The descriptive monologues into which characters launch, particularly Jones’s vivacious Ivy, grow perilously long. An episode, too, in which the tensions between the Lincolns explode before they leave for Ford’s feels as if it were downloaded from another play, perhaps a mid-1800s version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Contained in one or another strand of “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” — and most likely, in its most active scene, the assembling of Mary’s latest gown — is a potent examination of a fascinating alliance at a singular historical moment. If Thompson can excavate that, a truly riveting night of theater may await.
written and directed by Tazewell Thompson. Set, Donald Eastman; costumes, Merrily Murray-Walsh; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound and music composition, Fabian Obispo; wigs, Anne Nesmith. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through April 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.