Mary Todd...A Woman Apart-SL

Mary Todd...A Woman Apart

Mrs. Lincoln answers critics

Imagine seeing three of your four sons die of lingering illnesses, and your husband murdered. Then your last surviving son has you committed to a sanitarium.

It happened to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, the first lady who apparently wasn't first in the hearts of her son, some politicians, and many pundits.

This infamous presidential wife is getting a chance to answer her critics onstage in Hackettstown in "Mary Todd ... A Woman Apart," a new play that Centenary Stage artistic director Carl Wallnau has written for his wife, Colleen Smith Wallnau. (There are two other performers who contribute an occasional line.)

It begins on the day Mary Todd Lincoln is to be released from the sanitarium. ("After three months, one of the shortest stays on record," she crows.) In Ani Blackburn's set, both the wall behind her and mirror to her left are in fragments. Perhaps she is broken as well. After all, she is talking to the fourth wall, which just might be a padded one.

No question that this Mary Todd has a need to explain herself, and Wallnau delivers her lines briskly, rarely taking the time to lick her lips. But she isn't going too fast to be understood -- either in speech or in capturing the essence of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Sometimes she pleasantly reminisces. "I was once something of a belle, and could make a bishop forget his prayers," she brags. She recalls that her nouveau-riche parents didn't like Abe, and that he, in turn, found them pretentious. Case in point: Her family name was originally Tod, but the second "d" was added later, prompting Lincoln to say, "One 'd' was good enough for God, but not for the Tods."

When Wallnau quotes the president, she thrusts her thumbs into imaginary suspenders and adopts a folksy twang. It's just one of the many voices she'll expertly replicate of the people Todd met during her life: the French, Southern, African-American and Irish. The last is a White House worker who tells salacious stories of previous first ladies, prompting Todd to wonder what he'll say about her in the years to come.

Wallnau, costumed handsomely in a jet black, high-waisted hoop skirt, spends much of the show suppressing her anger. But she soon succumbs to frustration and genuine agony.

She has just reason, as she ruminates on the son who put her here. ("A man of few vices -- and fewer virtues.") Wallnau heartbreakingly states that she expected "our children would be a comfort in our old age." Distraught, she eventually held séances in hopes of reconnecting with her dead sons. This and other adventures garnered some bad press, but she insists she's not the woman she was alleged to be. "If I really was two- faced as they say," she asks, "would I wear this one?"

Indeed, she still has a chip on each of her sloping shoulders. Wallnau occasionally juts out her chin in defiance -- but her face falls after she mentions Anne Rutledge, said to be Lincoln's true love. When Wallnau speaks of her, she tightly clasps her hands, as if she were in fervent prayer that none of the rumors about Lincoln and Rutledge are true.

Coincidentally, Wallnau bears a great resemblance to Lady Bird Johnson, and might someday consider taking on that role as well. She certainly is doing first-rate work with this first lady.

Mary Todd ...

A Woman Apart

Where: Centenary Stage Company, Centenary College, 400 Jefferson St., Hackettstown

When: Through March 16. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

How much: $17.50 ($15 for students and seniors and $12.50 for children under 12). Call (908) 979-0900.