How Soft the Lining is an enjoyable new work that brings considerable emotional power to bear on its exploration of the complexities of American history.
How Soft the Lining, by Kirsten Greenidge. Staged by Bad Habit Productions at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through November 20.
By Erik Nikander
It is pretty tempting for writers, when they look back into the past, to focus on the personalities and grand events that irrevocably altered the course of history. Dramatist Kirsten Greenidge, in her new historical drama How Soft the Lining, admirably resists temptation. The play brushes up against the monumental: the outbreak of the Civil War as well as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But the script wisely focuses on a single relationship: the long-lasting friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. Greenidge uses this central bond as a prism through which to examine thorny issues of gender, race, and class. The irony is that, by concentrating on the personal, the drama ends up feeling both historically authentic and relevant.
After earning her freedom by making and selling dresses, Keckley sets out for Washington, D.C. where she starts her own dressmaking business. As she gains prominence, her work catches the eye of Mary Todd Lincoln; the two unconventional women meet and click right away. Despite their different backgrounds they have much in common, and their friendship grows and deepens. Years pass, and each woman experiences triumphs as well as devastating tragedies. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Lincoln finds herself struggling with money problems; she calls on Keckley to help when she is forced to sell her wardrobe. The two reconnect, but soon find their relationship tested by pride and social realities.
From its beginning, with spirituals for the pre-show music, How Soft the Lining asserts itself as a play about the necessity for black voices. A major source of conflict between Mary Todd and Elizabeth is the latter’s ambition to write a book chronicling her life as a slave and her time working at the White House. Mary Todd is unhappy with this decision, feeling that it is not appropriate for her friend to reveal secrets about the Lincoln White House. But Elizabeth insists on telling her story on her own terms, rejecting censorship. By publishing her memoir, Elizabeth is battling against a culture that suppresses her voice. If she shied away from telling the truth about her own life, she’d be giving up yet another measure of freedom as a sacrifice to the white historical narrative. Mary Todd is genuinely sympathetic to Elizabeth on a personal level, but she doesn’t quite get the hardships that black Americans faced, particularly in the North. Thus the relationship between the two friends is powerfully dynamic, charged by the tension generated between closeness and social/racial separation.
Elle Borders initially seems a bit young to be playing an aging Elizabeth, but her performance offers enough maturity to offset that slight disconnect. In fact, Elizabeth had to grow up quickly. From a young age responsibility and maturity had been forced on her — she lived under the near-constant threat of a whipping. Bridgette Hayes’ Mary Todd dealt with a much smaller burden growing up — a disapproving stepmother — so she is a bolder personality. The play undercuts the popular perception of the First Lady as crazy or hysterical; instead, she is portrayed as a grief-stricken woman whose biggest flaw was being more modern than the era she lived in. Hayes does splendidly with each facet — funny, touching, and frustratingly stubborn — of Mary Todd’s character.
Apart from the two lead performers, the Bad Habit cast features an ensemble of five. Most of these actors are adept at playing a number of parts, though there is one exception. Gabriel Graetz takes on multiple characters, and he does a fine job. But one of his roles is Abraham Lincoln, and Graetz looks nothing like Honest Abe. The other actors’ lack of resemblance to their real-life historical counterparts isn’t of much consequence. But Lincoln should look like Lincoln. That quibble aside, the ensemble cast members provide moments of subtle brilliance; for example, the fact that both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s sons are played by the same actor makes an incisive point about their common humanity.
M. Bevin O’Gara directs the performers well (especially her two leads), but some of her other creative choices are less consistent. This is a stripped-down production, both in terms of its small, intimate set and limited number of props. The sound design is performed on-stage by the actors, a decision that has its ups and downs. They pull off the rhythmic thrumming of a steam train quite well, and they’ve come up with a truly inspired way to depict a ticker tape machine. On the other hand, having an adult actor imitate a baby’s cry throughout a scene is silly. The anachronistic hip-hop/techno music used during transitions between scenes also strikes a wrong note.
Some of the creative decisions in this production seem odd, and the script has a tendency to present its themes bluntly. But, overall, How Soft the Lining is an enjoyable new work that brings considerable emotional power to bear on its exploration of the complexities of American history — and their resonances with current events.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.