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"I am a sucker for histories and biographies," explains Pygmalion Productions artistic director Fran Pruyn. "The whole concept of 'the first American woman lawyer' springing Mary Todd Lincoln out of an insane asylum where she had been involuntarily committed by her son was delicious. Mary Todd Lincoln has been such a magnet for gossip, legend and half-truths. I thought it would be fun to work with the playwright and an actor to concoct our own version of the character."
Pruyn is describing "Mary and Myra," the historical drama by Catherine Filloux that she is directing. The production opens Pygmalion's new season on Friday.
Filloux also wrote "Selma '65," which Pygmalion produced last spring, and the two plays share a theme that reflects Pygmalion's mission: A focus on "significant women who have made a difference in history; … that could be someone who made a difference accidentally, like in 'Selma '65,' or a person who was striving for justice, or a person who always wanted to end up in the White House." That explains the two women in "Mary and Myra."
Pruyn believes that Mary married Abraham Lincoln "because she thought he'd be a winner. … He really redefined what it meant to be a first lady, not necessarily in positive ways."
Most everyone knows Mary Todd Lincoln and has an opinion about her, but few people have heard of Myra Bradwell. She was an activist in the women's suffrage movement, but she clashed with Susan B. Anthony on the movement's image of womanhood and "was written out of history literally," Pruyn says. Anthony never mentioned Bradwell in her overstuffed book, "History of Women Suffrage."
"Myra chose to go with the more moderate ideas of the suffragette movement, which was to fight it by writing law," explains Teresa Sanderson, who is portraying her. "They didn't want to give up their family and home life; they just wanted equal rights. … She's so fascinating to me because her home life was very important."
Myra began by helping her husband, who was a lawyer and Illinois legislator, but decided she also wanted to practice law. Although she passed the bar exam, she was not allowed to work as a lawyer because she was a woman and couldn't legally sign contracts, so she became the publisher and editor of the Chicago Legal News, the country's most important legal newspaper. The paper prompted the passage of some laws "that made significant difference in the way women were treated and, more specifically, the way they could interact on a professional level. So she was a force," Pruyn says.
"She ran that paper in a time when not very many women were doing that kind of stuff," adds Sanderson. "She's pretty damned impressive."
The two women were friends and neighbors in Chicago, so when Myra heard that Mary's son had put her in an insane asylum, she determined to get her released. "Was she crazy?" asks Tamara Howell, who plays Mary. "Did she belong in a mental institution? Probably not. What made people think that she did? Obviously some eccentric behavior. The playwright keeps the audience off balance. … You don't know what's coming next from her."
How Mary's son could put her in an asylum is another intriguing question. "That's what some men did when they just didn't want to deal with women who were difficult," Pruyn says.
Mary was definitely difficult and eccentric. "She was grief-stricken, having lost three of her sons, and her husband was assassinated while she was holding his hand in the box," Pruyn explains. She thinks Mary probably had PTSD. Howell says her research reveals that Mary did have a brain tumor. Sanderson says Mary's son may also have wanted access to her money.
She's more interested in why Myra wants to help Mary. "Myra has her own motives," she says. "It's to get noticed there's no doubt about that [but it's also] to make a point that you cannot do this to women: you can't just put us away and shut us up." She also finds Myra fascinating for her almost obsessive dedication to her cause. "I don't know if I've played a character whose objective is so clear, and she fights for it from beginning to end. … There are a million tactics that she uses, but she's there to solve this case to get Mary out. She won't quit until she does." Sometimes the stumbling block is Mary herself because her behavior is so erratic. She is her own worst enemy.
Pruyn didn't choose the play for Howell and Sanderson, but she did encourage them to read for it and is delighted they can do the show together. "They can really make exciting decisions about these characters that are intriguing and unpredictable. … I needed people who could handle the serious moments, the lyricism and the physical comedy, and that's not easy."
The play presents challenges. Both actors have to cope with elaborate period costumes, including gloves and hats. One of Howell's dresses weighs 40 pounds. And there are many of props. Mary was "a hoarder," Pruyn says. "When she died, she had 64 trunks … that were just full of stuff." And Myra is "constantly bringing her things," Sanderson says with a laugh. "We might have to have the attendant help me get on because I'm carrying everything."
Although "Mary and Myra" is historical drama, Pruyn feels today's audiences can easily relate to it. The play also is funnier than we expect, although the characters are usually unaware of the humor.
And the struggle for women's rights is certainly not over. "How we treat women and have historically treated women and allowed men to do what they will with women is an interesting parallel," Howell says. "You go, 'I thought we'd come so far,' … and then suddenly something pulls you up … and says, 'No, you've really not come as far as you think you have.' "
There is room for optimism. "This story at this time is amazing," Sanderson observes. "These are the women who broke the barriers for us, and now we could actually elect a woman to the most powerful job in the land. Somewhere Myra Bradwell is smiling."
'Mary and Myra'
Pygmalion's season opener highlights a little-known historical relationship.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 28; plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 12, with an extra matinee Nov. 12 at 2 p.m.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; $15 for students and seniors; 801-355-ARTS; pygmalionproductions.org