Mrs President

A haunting celeste chime creates a sombre mood that permeates John Ransom Phillips’s Mrs President at C Aquila as Mary Lincoln (LeeAnne Hutchison) poses for photographer Mathew Brady (Christopher Kelly) to capture the image of herself that she wishes to portray to the world.

A sensitively crafted and informative drama

Brady had already made a name for himself as a pioneering photographer who recorded events in the Civil War and as a man in whom the rich and famous had faith and trust including President Lincoln whose portrait image he took in 1864 was chosen for the $5 bill series 1999 issue to the present. He refers to Mary Lincoln in the etiquette of the day as “Mrs Lincoln”, but she is always quick to correct him with a simple, if rather abrupt, “Mrs President”. She was acutely aware of her status yet knew she had none of the adulation or respect traditionally accorded to the First Lady. She was a well-educated member of a large and wealthy, slave-owning Kentucky family - a southerner, some of whose family fought against the north in the Civil War. She spent extravagantly on the refurbishment of the White House and threw lavish parties, all during a time of economic austerity. She suffered the death of three of her four sons, There was nothing unusual about such events at the time, but Mary Lincoln chose to publicly mourn her losses and display her grief, which was seen as challenging the will of God. She became despised by those around her and by the public at large, despite her undying loyalty and support for her husband

Acutely aware of being reviled, she sought, through Brady, to display an mage of herself that might in some way redress the balance of her reputation. Thus the play centres around Brady’s studio and the many sessions they had together framing the perfect shot. Despite suggestions of a close relationship in some movement sequences, the play rejects the suggestion they had an affair. Brady was also not without his problems: failing eyesight caused him much distress and obviously interfered with his work.

Hutchison captures the tormented soul of Mary Lincoln whose grief is exacerbated by the assassination of her husband and who struggles to reconcile the public’s perception of her with her status as First Lady. She makes the journey from a determined woman of dignity falling into decline through illness and adversity finally overcome by mental issues that provoke her surviving son and an all-male jury into having her committed to an asylum. Kelly, who starts as the sell-assured somewhat egotistical man with an established reputation, also moves on to suggest a man in decline anxious to cover up his failing worried about its implications. The chemistry between the two of them generates a warm atmosphere under Lily Wolff’s delicate direction and the simple set of chair and camera combined with subtle lighting and sound by the company, Rec Room Arts and JPR Art Group, ensure the focus is clearly pointed to the emotional variations and vulnerability they portray.

The play contributes to redressing the traditional image of Mary Lincoln as a vilified woman with insights that explain her condition in a sensitively crafted and informative drama.

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Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Mary Lincoln is grieving. She needs a new image to win the hearts of the American people and silence the envious elite accusing her of treason. Who better for the job than the celebrity photographer who helped her husband win the presidency? But all is not as it appears for the First Lady… Subject and artist battle for creative control over their own narratives as they attempt to capture an iconic image of America’s First Widow. A new play about the power of representation by acclaimed artist, playwright, and historian John Ransom Phillips.

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