The internationally-celebrated playwright and opera librettist Catherine Filloux has found a theme that runs through much of her drama. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, though it must have been a common experience since Cain slew Abel, was only formally identified around 1980, and is still routinely overlooked or misunderstood in society at large. Sorting out the implications of a condition that uniquely victimizes victims is sophisticated work: the kind perhaps best done by telling stories.
Filloux’s play, Mary and Myra, currently being staged by Pygmalion Productions and directed by Fran Pruyn, examines the role of PTSD in the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose bad behavior and eventual insanity were public knowledge during her lifetime, but are largely forgotten today. Also on hand is Myra Bradwell, often described as the first American woman to become a lawyer, whose struggles have also been largely deleted from history.
It’s the playwright’s self-assigned task not only to rekindle memory of these two remarkable women, but to envision them in a new way. To that end, the villains of the play, who remain offstage but become visible through hearsay, are not those we might expect. President Lincoln’s assassin is never mentioned, though Mary agonizes over her part in hiring an irresponsible drinker for her husband’s bodyguard. Rather, it’s her son Robert, the only survivor of the five men of her family, who has hastily and illegally confined her to a mental institution in order to gain control of the widow’s pension she conceived of and worked hard to establish. Meanwhile, Myra struggles against dismissal by the all-male legal establishment, but it’s the radical feminists, who want the vote and see her avocation as a distraction, if not a kind of capitulation, who will write her out of “their” story. The play leaves it for the curious to find out what followed its events: Mary Lincoln was recognized long after her death as almost certainly a victim of pernicious anemia, an often fatal condition that lent character to men, but made women merely difficult; while after winning the vote, the early feminist movement fell apart, leaving individual women to press on and make real inroads in vocational fields previously thought too harsh for women, like medicine, the law, and—we hardly need to remind ourselves in 2016—politics.
Filloux is right, though, to focus on what Mary and Myra knew firsthand about their status as women. Both were remarkable, and remarkably talented, human beings whose personal qualities changed lives around them. Yet both were also blunted by self-serving assumptions that were misrepresented as rational reasons for turning half the world’s population into domestic servants. The way such conflicts have always been internalized shows up in subtle gestures, like the way the two women dress each other, or reflexively tug the bedclothes straight as they reminisce about life in the White House, or discuss Bradwell’s Chicago Legal News, the first such journal in the United States to be published by a woman.
Any two persons spending almost two hours in conversation in a room could be a formula for tedium, but Mary and Myra never allow Mary and Myra to settle into tedium. It’s funny, and surprisingly full of innovative action, but also works on multiple levels at once. Known as a young debutante for her insight as well as her wit and charm, Mary sees through Myra’s pretense of altruism to the ambition that brought her to take on such a notorious case, attacking her with witty, leading comments and, occasionally, her fists. Myra, who remembers her friend as first lady of the United States, and an international celebrity, struggles to retain respect while dealing with someone who no longer bathes, dresses, or goes outside. During one meeting, Mary impulsively decides to jump on her bed like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch; then refuses to help Myra with the case unless she joins her. To witness these two women, one in her 40s and the other in her 50s, each large in her own way, each wearing enough fabric to make a tent, one eager and the other not, gradually give physical form to their affectionate but contentious friendship is to see why some stories must be told visually, and not just with words.
Tamara Johnson Howell’s aging-yet-elfin Mary makes great use of her mobile face, able to walk the line between delusion and penetrating insight. In one moment she conjures the presence of one or more of her dead sons or her husband, whose memory she holds at a distance by styling him “the Great One,” except at night when red dreams and sudden, if imaginary gunshots keep her from sleep. A moment, or an instant later, her coquettish eyes flash a chilling revelation into the cold truth of human nature. Teresa Sanderson has, paradoxically, the less attractive role: not the heroine in shining armor, but the victim’s role familiar to anyone who has tried to befriend someone made unreliable by mental instability. She must constantly strive to keep her dignity, yet be ready to roll with the punches that inevitably follow even the most affectionate words and actions.
The production supports these two in sometimes heroic ways. Michael Nielsen’s blizzard of overdresses and petticoats, which the women must remove and rearrange without the maids to which they are presumably accustomed, become a correlative of the genteel repression upper- class women lived with. The elegant moldings and windows of Thomas George’s set, with their sinister, almost invisible bars, surround a mountain of trunks that symbolize (and in fact, contain) the widow’s grand, lost past, while an obstacle course of wrong furniture—like the insensitively-chosen rocking chair so like the one her husband sat in at Ford’s Theater—captures the veneer of gentility that masked the horror of mental-health treatment in 1875, which except for losing that surface illusion hasn’t changed all that much since. Jesse Portillo’s lighting does double duty, realistically suggesting the time of day in alternation with expressing the widow’s often extreme states of mind. Troy Klee’s sound collage similarly moved between invoking the 19th century, suggesting the world (and life going on) outside Mrs. Lincoln’s room, and then recalling how the asylum comprises one of the most horrifying parts of mental disease.
Perhaps most telling, however, and as so often happens at PYG, innovation in staging makes the most original contribution. One of the stage crew (presumably either DeeDee Lynch, McKalle Dalle, or Rebecca Smith—no credit was assigned) moved about the stage during the play in the guise of a hospital attendant—one of our many cultural equivalents of the Kuroko, black-clad assistants in Japanese theater who are ignored by the audience as part of the apparatus—waiting on the patient and her guest while thanklessly sorting and folding the vast swaths of fabric they tossed about, returning them to their places while surreptitiously setting out new props. It’s at moments like these, and in plays like Mary and Myra, that I truly feel that Pygmalion Productions makes me not just witness to an entertainment, but part of the history and future of theatrical art.
Pygmalion Production’s staging of Catherine Filloux’s Mary & Myra, directed by Fran Pruyn and featuring Tamara Johnson-Howell and Teresa Sanderson, is at the Rose Wagner Black Box Theatre through November 12.