Inspired by a painting of the subject at Ford’s Theater in Washington, writer-director Carl Wallnau devised this solo piece as a vehicle for his actress spouse. Colleen Smith Wallnau provides a strong portrait of the wife of Abraham Lincoln, convincingly depicting her as a proud, bitter, outspoken and often tactless woman.
The play presents a tortured, grieving widow “living in a haze of memory and pain.” It follows events in the life of Todd from the lanky lawyer’s awkward courtship to her place as the nation’s first lady and ultimately widowhood. Included are references to the death of her adored son Tad, her years as a wandering exile in Europe and her reckless spending. Following an agonizing public trial, her only surviving son Robert had her committed to an asylum.
Vivid supporting characters, also rendered by the star, include an amusing aged staffer who takes the new first lady on a tour of the White House, the devious trial lawyer Leonard Swett, the dubious medium Colchester and Dr. Willis Danforth, whose damning testimony resulted in the widow’s brief confinement in a mental institution.
There is minor assistance from two attendants who move pieces of furniture about and occasionally pop out of a cupboard or fireplace to preface a scene with a newspaper headline or a bit of damning gossip. It’s a rather awkward device.
Tech credits are admirable. The sound of horse hoofs in the distance, the patriotic marches, the roar of the crowd and the crackling boom of the fatal gunshot all add atmospheric flavor to the narrative. The flexible set serves for several locations, from the cold confines of a sanatorium to a ballroom.
Upstage panels revolve to reveal daguerreotype reproductions of the widow’s children and a familiar reproduction of the seated president in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. Moods are accented by subtle, atmospheric lighting design. Single costume is a black hoop-skirted dress.
Wallnau’s staging is precise and direct.
Play provides a role many an actress would cherish, and before it falls into the hands of a Zoe Caldwell or a Rosemary Harris, I trust Colleen Smith Wallnau will have the opportunity to reach larger audiences in her stunning performance.