“Mary and Myra,” Catherine Filloux’s two-person dramatization of the fight by lawyer Myra Bradwell to release Mary Todd Lincoln from an insane asylum following President Lincoln’s assassination, received an impassioned reading last Saturday at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Filloux, the guest playwright teaching next semester’s playwriting workshop, discussed the play’s influences and history alongside actresses Maria Tucci (Mrs. Lincoln) and Jennifer Van Dyck (Ms. Bradwell).
“I fell in love with Mary Todd Lincoln,” Filloux said during the post-reading question-and-answer session when asked about the play’s genesis. “I found her to be extremely funny and poetic.”
Funny and poetic accurately describe Filloux’s play, a nuanced study of the complicated dynamics between two very different women united in a common cause against patriarchal oppression. Lincoln’s seemingly erratic behavior following the sudden death of her husband (she refers affectionately to him as “the Great One” throughout the play) leads her sole living son, Robert, to institutionalize her in Bellevue Place, a private insane asylum in Batavia, Ill. Bradwell, a personal friend as well as professional lawyer, soon comes to her aid, and struggles to gain Mary’s release within a legal system that de-values and undermines the independence and intelligence of women.
Not that Mary, a somewhat scattered traditionalist, necessarily agrees with the brisk and methodical Myra’s new-fangled ideas of the assertive working woman. Even at their most congenial, Lincoln and Bradwell’s differing views on the role of women in society leads to sometimes comedic, sometimes heated exchanges.
“You are so strong minded, it’s a wonder Jeremy [Myra’s husband] finds you attractive,” Lincoln says in response to Bradwell’s rapid-fire questioning.
When the case becomes increasingly complicated in the play’s second act, the frustrated women lash out at one another in a way that cut to the heart of their personal differences:
Myra (to Mary): “You are not a logical woman!”
Mary: “And you’re too logical!”
This ever-shifting ambivalence at the heart of Mary and Myra’s relationship, the blurring of private belief systems with publicly shared goals, formed the heart of Filloux’s writing. Audience members particularly seemed to appreciate the complexity and care Filloux took in crafting her female protagonists.
“It’s great to see a female playwright writing roles for women,” said Randa Tawil ’09. “The relationship between Mary and Myra was particularly interesting.”
The reading, presented by the Theater Department, took place on the main floor of the ’92 Theater. Three chairs and a small table adorned with a water pitcher, drinking glasses, and a vase with a bouquet of white and red flowers provided the reading’s simple setting. Tucci and Van Dyck sat side by side, reading their scripts off music stands, while Filloux read stage directions.
Filloux’s layered, back-and-forth dialogue seemed to benefit from such a reading, with its emphasis on the auditory over the visual. Though some noted they missed bits of the un-miked actresses’ dialogue due to the theater’s less-than-ideal acoustics, the thirty-five-person audience, gathered on risers in front of the performers, appeared entranced.
“I thought it was wonderful,” said Rachel Silverman ’09. “There’s something magical about a reading because it’s like someone telling you a story.”
After the reading, Filloux addressed the issues of dramatizing historical events in a manner that remains true to the spirit of history while adding layers of the theatrical. After watching a History Channel documentary on the story of Lincoln and Bradford, Filloux knew she wanted to turn their story into a play.
She freely admits, however, that dramatic liberties were taken. This proved especially true because, according to the program notes, in 1928, “the attorneys for Robert’s [Mary’s son] estate purchased from Myra’s granddaughter all correspondence between Mary and Myra and destroyed it.”
Filloux particularly addressed the character’s unabashedly stylized way of speaking.
“The dialogue of Mary’s [in particular] is not realistic,” Filloux said. “It’s more of a poetic nature.”
Van Dyck also acknowledged the necessary push-and-pull between fact and fiction within the play.
“There’s a delicate balance between the page and history,” Van Dyck said.
For Tucci, the challenges of acting without movement can sometimes lead to a diminished product.
“Readings are a problem in that way,” Tucci said, “because the physical life is not there.”
Both actresses were in agreement, however, in their feelings toward the reading’s sense of lively spontaneity. Van Dyck, who attended one of the “Mary and Myra’s” earliest readings in 2000, seemed particularly struck by the ever-changing dynamics of performing Filloux’s play.
“Certain things are very familiar, and some things are very surprising,” Van Dyck said.