The Widow Lincoln, commissioned by Ford’s Theatre as part of Ford’s 150, invites us to see First Lady Mary Lincoln in a new light. Mrs. Lincoln was often criticized for her fragile temperament and strong opinions, but James Still’s Mary is a more sympathetic character. In an interview with Ford’s this summer, Still explained:
I am struck by Mary Lincoln’s fierceness, by her wit and by the accumulation of personal tragedies that made it more and more difficult for her to live her life without fear. Through my research and writing, I’ve come to see a sharp political woman who is at once dramatic, tragic and, at times, triumphant.
This last week, we interviewed The Widow Lincoln assistant director Carter Lowe about the artistic process and what audiences can expect from the show. Though he has previously worked on several other productions in D.C., this is Lowe’s first Equity production. As an intern in spring 2014 at Ford’s Theatre, Lowe is excited to be working with Ford’s again on this world premiere.
Old Legacy, New Show
As a commissioned world premiere, The Widow Lincoln provides a unique challenge for the creative team, as no precedent has ever been set. While at rehearsals, the cast and crew are able to work directly with playwright James Still himself. As Lowe says, “What strikes me the most is how the script evolves over time through the interactions between the playwright, director and actors. Very rarely in educational theatre does one get to work with a living playwright. … Discovering the way words can either contain or break a rhythm is exciting.”
The Widow Lincoln is a play centered on a single woman’s experience, and Mary Lincoln is a thrilling role for an actress to take on. The Widow Lincoln is also written for an all-female cast. Lowe adds, “With the recent [gender] parity discussions in regional theatre nationally, I’m proud of Ford’s, and James [Still] and [director] Stephen [Rayne] that this story is being told in this way.”
Lowe also is impressed with the congeniality between playwright and director in the rehearsal room. Having collaborated previously on The Heavens Are Hung In Black, Stephen Rayne and James Still have an excellent working relationship. “James and Stephen have a great rapport together in the rehearsal room, and it’s been valuable to see the various ways one can work with a playwright in the room.”
Even in his role as assistant director, Lowe finds that one can learn a lot from the actors, as well. He added, “Mary [Bacon], too, is a great collaborator. I think she feels a great responsibility in portraying her character, and her work ethic—Stephen often jokes she has more lines than Hamlet— is a great example for me as an actor.”
Watching History Unfold
At Ford’s Theatre, theatregoers have the unique opportunity to experience a show within the same venue as its history. When an audience member sits in their seat, they connect to real-life history. Lowe explains, “There’s a soberness to performing this piece at this time [the 150th anniversary year of Lincoln’s assassination] in this place. There was a moment [in the play] where Mary is talking about the box where Lincoln was assassinated… this moment happens while she is looking at the actual box where it happened.”
The absence of an actor portraying President Lincoln may seem a little odd in such a milestone year. Even though the play is centered around Mary Lincoln post-assassination, one cannot help but imagine the 16th president and how he fits into the play. According to Lowe, “Lincoln is like the picture of the father looming in The Glass Menagerie. He’s not there, but he is so there. [Lincoln’s] presence or memory, informs every character in every scene. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say he makes an appearance … in a manner of speaking.”
When asked to share a favorite insider secret from rehearsal, Lowe said, “The cast is filled with expert snackers. Sitting next to me while I type this are three different types of popcorn, ginger chews, trail mix, dried seaweed and two pieces of red velvet cake.” With the long rehearsal hours, it’s no wonder the cast works up an appetite.
Performances of The Widow Lincoln run through February 22, 2015. Don’t miss your chance to interact with playwright James Still at The Widow Lincoln Meet and Mingle event on Thursday, January 29, following the 7:30 p.m. performance.
Claire Gallo is a Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communication Intern and a student at American University with a double major in Public Relations/Strategic Communications and Sociology. Originally from New Jersey, Gallo is also a feature writer for HerCampus.com and enjoys her two new Golden Retriever puppies, Tanner and Oliver.