"Look Away: Mary Todd Lincoln’s Last Night in the Insane Asylum"
Beginning on October 20, 2011, and continuing for eight performances over two weeks, local performer and educator Alaina Zachary will be starring with Santa Fe actor Danielle Louise Reddick in a production (directed by Suzanne Lederer) of Jerome Kilty’s "Look Away: Mary Todd Lincoln’s Last Night in the Insane Asylum" (LA) at the Teatro Paraguas Studio.
Zachary has been the driving force behind this production, having exhaustively researched the subject of the treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln (and even contributing the above subtitle to the play). Without changing a word of the author’s text, this team of seasoned pros is recasting the emotional underpinnings of the work to create a more balanced and contemporary view of a much-maligned historical figure. "Look Away" promises to be an entertaining, informative, and insightful play into a small corner of American history that demands further investigation.
In an extended telephone interview on September 20, I had the pleasure of discussing Zachary’s latest theatrical endeavor. Since Zachary arrived from Chatham, N.Y. four years ago, she has kept to a schedule that is extraordinarily full. Included in her dramatic projects has been the Two Hander Series of play readings she created for the Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse. She met and performed with L.A. director Lederer in Eileen Atkins’ "Vita & Virginia," which is based on correspondence between Vita Sackville and Virginia Woolf on July 18, 2010. She discovered the work of Jerome Kilty while performing with Jonathon Richards in the author’s "Dear Liar," which is based on letters between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell on January 23, 2011.
From the start of her introduction to Kilty’s LA, Zachary was “haunted” by the work. “It seemed to choose me,” she said. She also felt that the “timing is perfect because of the serendipitous nature of a mini-Renaissance interest in the Civil War period with PBS’s re-airing of Ken Burns’ "The Civil War," Robert Redford’s releasing of his film "The Conspirators" and the publication of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, "Team of Rivals." Furthermore, Zachary could find no evidence that “the play [LA] was done since its New York run in 1973” with Rip Torn directing and Geraldine Page and Maya Angelou in the leading roles.
Zachary felt that Santa Fe with its large cadre of strong women artists was the perfect venue for “the scales to be balanced” in the historical record in assessing the life and times of Mary Todd Lincoln.
During Zachary’s research (which she compares to “treasure hunting”), she discovered the seminal fact that a decade after Kilty’s writing of LA, letters were found in the attic of Robert Todd Lincoln’s Manchester, Vt. home that by offering Mary Todd Lincoln’s views of her situation present a very different view of the conventional depiction of his mother as a troubled, unstable, problematic woman.
In fact, Todd Lincoln was a challenge to her contemporaries as a married and educated woman from the South in an age of highly-proscribed behavior for the sexes. Zachary believes that the Lincolns were “the first power couple” with “a combination of two forceful personalities” that led to Todd Lincoln’s direct influence on her husband’s presidency. Furthermore, the Lincolns’ open discussion of love was unique for their time and not reflective of how people live their lives today.
Todd Lincoln was not a totally innocent victim of the prejudices of her era. She seemed to revel in being the Washington outsider and thus brought many of her problems on herself. Zachary did find that Todd Lincoln probably suffered from what today we would call bi-polar disorder and did suffer from migraines. The standard treatment of the day for severe headaches was to prescribe laudanum which may have exacerbated her tendency to experience delusions.
Zachary makes the point that Todd Lincoln’s loss of three young children and the assassination of her husband in her presence is sufficient cause for her erratic, at times anti-social behavior. Zachary’s final position on the Lincoln marriage is that “the fire between them was unusual for its day” when women of a certain age were given the simple admonition to “marry and be healthy.”
As for the details of this project, Zachary chose the play and hired Lederer to direct. Reddick was asked to co-star, in part, because “we are physically similar types.” Zachary states that she is blessed with “a phenomenal team.” She is impressed with Lederer’s “theatrical intelligence. "She’s a professional [in all respects,” Zachary said. She finds Reddick’s “level of commitment and physical use of her body” to be admirable.
Zachary assembled this professional team along with a highly skilled group of theatrical designers and support personnel—Skip Rapoport (lighting design), Clara Soister (sound design), and Lynn Peck (stage manager)-- because “I most want to acknowledge and compensate [such talented individuals] for their gift(s)," she said.
From the production’s inception, the LA team had to deal with “the excessively over-written nature of the play.” Zachary notes “ all plays must be actable and that good acting attempts to focus the bullets of the project” while meeting the central “need to make it compelling.” The dramatic core of this production resides in a legal system run exclusively by men and that defines “insanity” in legal rather than medical terms. Todd Lincoln will have only one opportunity to have her day in court to make her case, especially in light of her attorney’s failure to fight the charges brought against her by her own son and the supporting depositions of other Washingtonians.
This production of LA will attempt to highlight Mary Todd Lincoln as “an extraordinary woman—the term ‘first lady’ was coined for her”—who was “a powerful, smart, complicated and intelligent woman who was way ahead of her time.” With both partners being ambitious and gifted, the “Lincolns created the presidency.” Todd Lincoln was a “force to be reckoned with and she cannot be distilled into the category of ‘crazy person’.”
Zachary’s theatrical career has had three distinct stages. With youthful aspirations to become an opera singer, she had a “handsome and prosperous career” in television (commercials), on radio (talk shows and radio dramas), and on the New York stage, including being in the original casts and album casts of "Nine" and "Baby," and the original cast of "Grease." Zachary reasoned that she would be most employable in the era of the mega-musical in musical theater. However, in New York, one “is always seen in the same way and I couldn’t break out.” To meet her “deep-well passion to create people in serious theater,” Zachary left New York City to relocate in Upstate New York, where she continued to pursue “classical singing by fronting choral groups and performing solo.” However, she also pursued acting roles in classical and contemporary works and expanded the scope of her career.
After she visited Santa Fe in 2006 to “see a week of performances at the Santa Fe Opera, Zachary “was dumbstruck by the physical beauty of northern New Mexico.” She moved to Santa Fe two years later, knowing only her cabaret partner Lisa Carmen (They performed together in Upstate New York and Santa Fe in "Aged to Perfection") whom she had met in a production of "Gypsy" years earlier in Ghent, N.Y. Zachary believes she was “called to live in Santa Fe…and with its amazing sense of welcoming. I have found my true home.”
Zachary credits local theater people with being “so generous with information,” such as how to get work produced. Zachary auditioned for a part in Craig Barnes’s "The Last Tudor" that was being produced by Tone Forrest’s Red Thread Collective and directed by Clara Soister. Though disappointed that she did not receive a part in the play, Zachary met Soister who voiced her desire to work with her in the future. They did so in 2010 when Zachary suggested doing Paul Rudnick’s "The Last Century" to the Santa Fe Playhouse board of directors who accepted the proposal. Zachary auditioned for a part, won it and Soister was her director.
Zachary has made a major impression on Santa Fe’s theatrical community in just a few short years. Her energy, intelligence, and talent suggest that she will remain a dynamic force in the local arts scene for years to come. Welcome, Alaina Zachary.
"Look Away: Mary Todd Lincoln’s Last Night in the Insane Asylum" will be presented Thursdays through Saturdays on October 20-22 & October 27-29 at 7:30 P.M. and on Sundays on October 23 & 30 at 4 P.M. at Teatro Paraguas Studio, 3221 Richards Ave.
Ticket Prices: $20.
For information and reservations (seating is limited) contact Teatro Paraguas at 424-1601.
Photo Gallery Information:
Mary Todd Lincoln (Photo provided by Alaina Zachary)
Alaina Zachary in NUNSENSE (Photo provided by Russell Sage College)
Alaina Zachary and Lisa Carmen in AGED TO PERFECTION (Photographer credit: David Morton)
Alaina Zachary and Danielle Louise Reddick in LOOK AWAY (Photographer credit: Benndett Freilich)
Alaina Zachary and William Verderber in THE LION IN WINTER (Photographer credit: Calvin Hobbes)
Alaina Zachary and David McConnell in SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS. (Photographer credit: John Hayes)
Original Broadway cast of NINE. Alaina Zachary is to the immediate left rear of Director Tommy Tune. (Photo provided by Alaina Zachary)