Women have played important roles throughout history, yet their stories aren’t always told. Pygmalion Productions’ “Mary and Myra” marks one effort to change that. You can catch the performance for another few days until Nov. 12.
Written by playwright Catherine Filloux, “Mary and Myra” is a historical play revolving around Mary Todd Lincoln’s time in an insane asylum and the efforts of her journalist/lawyer friend, Myra Bradwell, to get Mary out.
Consisting of a cast filled by Tamara Johnson Howell as Mary Todd Lincoln and Teresa Sanderson as Myra Bradwell, with only brief appearances by an additional extra and backed by a minimal set, one might expect a lack of excitement and energy.
With Pygmalion’s production, this could not be more false.
Right off the bat, the play’s performance venue of downtown Rose Wagner’s Black Box Theater creates an intimate feel. The first row of audience seating is placed on the same level as the stage, which starts only a few feet from the chairs. Audiences are thus able to feel as if they are part of the scenes unfolding before them, rather than mere observers.
The set itself is made up of a bed, a few chairs, randomly distributed footrests, one desk, one coat-hanger and a whole wall of trunks backing the set, three of which open around the front of the set space. As the audience later learns, those trunks all belong to Mary Lincoln, who apparently has a certain love for shopping.
The set was clearly visible before the show began. Initially, nothing about it suggested its location inside an asylum–but that changes in moments with the first scene, featuring Howell as Lincoln standing alone in the suddenly-red-lit room, the sound of a woman’s shrill scream filling the background.
Dramatic shifts from familiar and comfortable to terrifying and uncertain are central components of the play. They happen when you least expect it, jolting you from any distractions, keeping you focused on the interactions between Mary and Myra, who undergo similar shifts throughout the play’s two hours, as Mary in particular shifts from seemingly sane to–maybe not?
These interactions are brilliantly done. Both Howell and Sanderson easily carry the story, with Howell in particular portraying her character with astonishing–and at times alarming–realism. As part of her slightly creepy nature, Howell would look out at the audience and even make eye contact, which was simultaneously engaging and nerve-wracking.
Howell’s performance as Mary was fascinating to watch. She could vacillate between clearly lucid and not-altogether present in seconds, leaving audience members feeling as if they were in her mind undergoing the same extremes alongside her. Sanderson’s more temperate Myra, then, acted as balance for an audience stretched multiple directions in a short span of time.
Filled with discussions of sanity and insanity, women’s position in the world, experiences of loss and historical anecdotes–such as Abraham Lincoln’s refusal to tell anyone he was pleased to meet them when he didn’t feel himself to be–“Mary and Myra” leaves you with a different take on history that is entirely relevant to today’s age. The play manages to provide it all with moments of pure, unbridled hilarity you can’t help but laugh at.
“Mary and Myra” runs from Oct. 28 through Nov. 12 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available either by calling 801-355-ARTS or at www.artsaltlake.org.