‘Dolley Madison, Presidentress’ at Sandy Spring Theatre Group

Few, if any, “Founding Mothers” had a more profound influence on the early history of the United States than Dolley Madison. It would be an honor for any American to meet this legendary figure, and you can do just that at the Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s production of Dolley Madison, Presidentress. For sixty riveting minutes, award-winning actress Mara Bayewitz “becomes” Dolley Madison and turns in a bravura performance in a compelling one-woman show. Through the brilliant direction of Karen Dugard and the thorough research and superb writing of Charity Goodman and Stan Levin, the life and times of the wife of our nation’s fourth President are brought into clear focus. Dugard also had a hand in the research and writing, along with history consultant Bill Spitz.

Mara Bayewitz as Dolley Madison.
Mara Bayewitz as Dolley Madison.

The simple but very effective set is credited as a “Team Effort.” It consists of a table and chair, a coat rack, a writing desk and chair, and a footstool. There is a small portrait of James Madison on the desk and a small portrait of George Washington on the wall. The effect is enhanced by Joe Connor’s lighting design and Jennifer Georgia’s props. Georgia also served as costumer and provided a beautiful replica of Dolley Madison’s signature red velvet empire-style dress and turban.

Dolley Madison is the perfect subject for a one-woman show. She was one of the most interesting women in America at a time when women were supposed to merely stay in the background. She was the wife of President James Madison and was the first “first lady” to attend a presidential inauguration and the first to hold an inaugural ball. Dolley was known as one of those people who lit up the room when she entered. She was much younger than her husband, taller, and much more entertaining than the president who was very much a wallflower.

In addition to being a matchmaker for romantic couples, Dolley had a knack for putting the right people together to solve the problems of state. In fact, her talent for diplomacy earned her the nickname “Presidentress” from the press.

Besides helping her husband with her bright personality, she is famous for refusing to leave the White House when the British army was approaching in 1814 until she could secure the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington.

For all of her success, Dolley Madison had more than her share of problems. Her first husband and one of her sons died when she was only 25 years old; she was reduced to poverty after her second husband died; and her remaining son was an alcoholic, a gambler, and a thief whose profligate spending required her to sell her beloved plantation. Even so, she was a fixture in society until her death in Washington in 1849.

Mara Bayewitz is the perfect actress for this show. She portrays Dolley as the poised and charming “hostess with the mostess,” but also as a grieving wife and mother, and a courageous patriot who sacrificed her personal belongings in favor of saving national treasures.

Although this is a one-woman show, Bayewitz’s talent allows Dolley to carry on several interactions with a number of other “characters.” For example, early in the play, she portrays both Dolley—who was brought up as a Quaker—and a neighbor who is teasing Dolley about her drab clothes.

Another “conversation” in which Bayewitz plays both parts involves Mrs. Merry, the wife of a British diplomat. Dolley served as “first lady” to President Jefferson after his wife died and at a State dinner, Jefferson escorted Dolley instead of Mrs. Merry. To smooth over this perceived snub, Dolley invited Mrs. Merry to tea, where she charmed the Englishwoman by sharing scandalous rumors. Dolley was given credit for averting a war with England!

Dolley Madison.
Dolley Madison.

During the scene with the evacuation of the White House and the rescue of the portrait of George Washington, Dolley is speaking with several male characters. Rather than attempting to imitate the men, Bayewitz portrays the situation using only her own reactions—such as voice inflections and facial expressions. When Dolley has an intense interaction with her son, Bayewitz’s performance is so vivid that the audience actually “feels” that there is another actor on the stage.

After the show, Bayewitz (as herself) joins the director and writers for a fascinating discussion with the audience that covers both the process and the subject matter. Dolley Madison, Presidentress is sometimes lively and humorous, sometimes moving and sad, but always educational and entertaining. And, Mara Bayewitz’s stunning performance reminds us that learning can be fun.

Running Time: One hour with no intermission, plus a 30-minute post-show discussion.

Dolley Madison, Presidentress continues today, Saturday, April 26th at 3 pm and 7:30 pm and tomorrow, Sunday, April 27th at 3 pm, at the Sandy Spring Museum -17901 Bentley Road, in Sandy Spring, MD. Tickets are $15.00 and can be purchased at the door, or online.

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.


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