“The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln,” a workshop production presented at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, is an intriguing glimpse into the life and psyche of one of the least popular first ladies in our country’s history. Mary Lincoln, played by Michele Tauber, invites the press in for an interview in the hopes that she can reach out to her estranged son Robert. The resultant flow of consciousness ramblings from Mary range from gossiping about other president’s wives, reminisces of her time with the late president and glimpses into her childhood that elucidates just how far back Mrs. Lincoln’s haunted and tortured past goes.
Tauber has a Kathy Bates-esque quality to her performance and moments of raw vulnerability. However, the pacing feels rushed and often moments are not given the time to fully develop, especially where Mary’s insanity comes through. Lincoln swings from lucid moments, to a screeching outburst of dismay and then back to lucidity in a flash giving the feeling of an actress playing crazy instead of a character being crazy. This is more a product of the script and production design, than Tauber’s performance.
Playwright Tom Dugan falls prey to the use of melodrama to drive home the fact that Mary Lincoln suffered from bouts of insanity instead of trusting to the story itself. The stories that Lincoln chooses to share and the obvious hurt, and insignificance that she felt are a running theme throughout her life. These insecurities coupled with the tremendous losses she suffered are enough to make anyone go a little crazy. This is evident, and beautifully so, without Mary suddenly screaming and beating the floor with a broom because she saw a mouse.
Director Jenny Sullivan adds to this melodrama by employing ridiculously loud thunderclaps and haunted blue lighting while Tauber stares out vacantly into the ether. Instead of serving as a powerful production device it was instead startling and by the end of the play distracting and unwanted, like the friend that continues to jump out and yell boo hours after you’ve left the haunted house.
Buried beneath these melodramatic elements are the heart-breaking events that led to the breakdown and collapse of an already fragile and insecure woman. Despite those insecurities she has moments of charm and wit and several very funny moments. The “crazy” bits aren’t needed for levity or elucidation; those are already present at the heart of the story itself.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News