Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
September 11, 2006
"He was holding my hand when he was shot, Mr. Wilke." Thus, Mary Todd Lincoln refutes allegations that her husband didn't love her to a reporter drawn to an Illinois asylum by a sensational story: Had the President's widow been committed by her sole surviving son Robert on false pretenses? Was Mary insane or was her behavior the result of over-medication combined with the immense grief at the loss of three children and a loving husband? History tells us that she won her freedom after a four month stay in the sanitarium due largely to the efforts of a Chicago abolitionist and feminist, Myra Bradwell, and the public outcry Bradwell's campaign engendered. The question still exists, however, as to whether Mary was crazy or the victim of a conspiracy involving her politically ambitious son. Clearly, June Bingham (book) and Carmel Owen (music and lyrics) recognize the dramatic potential here. To me, though, they only partially realize this potential in the current production of their show Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln at the York Theatre Company. What they have crafted to date is an incipient opera, worthy of viewing for history buffs but in need of more work.
The trouble may be dramaturgical. The key tension is the conflict between Robert, played by Edwin Cahill, and Mary (Carolann Page). Loving son or ruthless opportunist? Mad mother or victim of depression? The authors' point of view comes out in favor of the wronged, sane Mary, but they reach the conclusion too early in the evening. Robert comes across at the outset as unsympathetic while Mary seems a saint. By the middle of the first act we are only staying to see how the inevitable will play out, not to see how the drama will unfold.
Given these parameters, the music takes center stage. Owen is onto something with her music, which is modern in feel and operatic in scope, though her lyrics tend to be predictable. Still, there are laudable moments of Puccini proportions. I do wish she would write at least one of the male roles in a more baritone or bass range—there are too many earnest bari-tenor high notes, for my taste.
The cast is a talented group of seasoned professionals who all sing well. At times the acting seemed forced, as if the dialogue had just been learned. But typical to New York the rehearsal process was probably truncated and the glitches will smooth out in performance. The larger issue is the singing with respect to the score. Only Page comes close to achieving the required legit vocal pyrotechnics. She is also extremely likeable and has created a fun, complex character. If she doesn't quite achieve all the Lucia moments in the score, she still is enjoyable to watch.
Terese Wadden's costumes are period perfect. James Morgan's set is appropriately expressionistic, consisting of a picture-framed proscenium, period furniture, and six very large frames containing images from Mary's life (and one blowup map of the brain). The set design is underutilized in the staging—the large frames are scrims and cry out for more inspired use. Yet director Fabrizio Melano has staged the production in a minimal style. There is virtually no choreography, with the exception of a waltz between Mary and Lincoln (in flashback). Generally, as in opera, the musical moments are performed downstage center. The lights, though, are over-utilized. Chris Robinson's design uses saturated color for backlighting effects so often that it calls attention to itself and detracts from the performance. Yes, the mood lights are pretty, but we really ought to be watching the actors. Even with these caveats, the sets, costumes, and lights are visually effective.
I can't help but get back to the aspirations of the piece versus the current production. It is commendable that York Theatre has produced Asylum, but when I really think about my problems with the show they all stem from what I see as it being currently an opera in musical clothing. Asylum should be allowed to grow and develop; perhaps one day we will see it at BAM or City Opera.