Mary T. and Lizzy K. looks at famous relationship

Linda Kelsey, Sha Cage, and Nike Kadri
Linda Kelsey, Sha Cage, and Nike Kadri
Photo by Petronella Ytsma
A long-developing relationship between Park Square Theatre and playwright Tazewell Thompson led to the regional premiere of a new work about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress/confidant Lizzy Keckly.

Thompson's Mary T. and Lizzy K. premiered in March at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The playwright's Constant Star had played at Park Square in 2006 and the conversation between the two continued through the years, says director Richard Cook.

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"It seems like the timing is perfect for a staged version [of the story]," Cook says. "Taz's intent really appealed to me. He sees these women as ahead of their time. They are from different backgrounds and are part of a totally different era of decorum and social relationships. These two women were truly intimate friends."

The company features Linda Kelsey (a five-time Emmy nominee for her work on Lou Grant) as Mary and Sha Cage as Lizzy. The cast is rounded out with Stephen D'Ambrose as President Lincoln and Nike Kadri as Ivy. Kadri is a student in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. program, which has made for a complex rehearsal schedule.

"Nike is a full-time student and has two jobs. Sha is raising small children. When do we rehearse? It has been the oddest rehearsal schedule I've ever had. Some days we start at 10 a.m. Other days we go to 11 p.m.," Cook says.

The play shifts between time in an asylum where Mary is a patient and the day Lincoln was assassinated 10 years previously. "The asylum scene is imagined, but it gives them a chance to evaluate the friendship and relationship they had in the White House," Cook says.

The production offers a number of challenges for the actors, director, and crew. "They construct a full-blown Victorian gown in one scene. It is a stunning piece of theater business," says Cook.

The costumes are a vital part of the show, and Park Square was able to rent the originals from the Arena Stage production. The designers there had tremendous access, including being able to see and touch the original creations from the 19th century. 

Cook saw the show twice in Washington. "I needed to hear how his actors used the language. It turned out to be much easier to hear and play than I feared. I needed to hear it under his guidance. The cast took to the language. They just jumped right in."

Each actor brings their own style of working to the process. "Linda and Sha have totally different ways of building characters. It has just been fascinating to watch two distinctive, equally strong talents in the same play getting to moments in their own way," Cook said.

The play also provides a fresh look at Mary Todd Lincoln. "It was important for Taz to rescue Mary Todd. I don't think she was ever crazy. She was in the institution for four months," Cook says. "I'm fascinated by Mary's spiritualism. The moments in the play where she looks insane or crazy, she is actually calling up these spirits. She had discussions with her dead sons. She also held traditional séances with others. She was not crazy. It was a form of religious belief and devotion and imagination."


Mary T. and Lizzy K.
Previews through Oct. 24; opens Oct. 25 through Nov. 10
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
$38-$58 ($25-$35 for previews)
For tickets and more information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online.

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