In the playbill for Arena Stage's most recently opened drama, "Mary T. & Lizzy K.," we are told simply that the time and place are: "19th century. A room." What happens in this room is extraordinary, both in terms of how its author and director, Tazewell Thompson, makes his characters behave and the way he envisions time.

The more recognizable character is Mary Todd Lincoln. The less recognizable character was one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs of the 19th century: Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who bought her freedom and worked as dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln.

The first and last scenes take place near the end of Mary Lincoln's life, when she had lost her family, when her irrational behavior was veering into madness. The center of the play is devoted to the four years that Lizzie worked as Mary Lincoln's "modiste."

Lizzie's life was demanding, but as Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris plays her, she is as solid as Gibraltar. That, of course, is what appealed to Mary Lincoln, whose life was a roller coaster of what we would today call bipolar behavior. Luqmaan-Harris emphasizes the emotional stability that is the basis of Lizzy's character, as well as her empathy.

If you go
'Mary T. & Lizzy K.'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: Through April 28
» Info: $40 to $85; 202-488-3300;

For her part, Naomi Jacobson offers a moving portrayal of Mary Lincoln, a woman who starts out wasting outrageous amounts of money on clothes and winds up awash in grief. Jacobson is particularly good in one scene when she expresses not only her own personal agony over war but the devastation of an entire nation.

Abraham Lincoln is portrayed well by Thomas Adrian Simpson, who creates a sense of paternal caring for Lizzie, although he was only nine years older than she. Simpson's Lincoln offers the well-known characteristics we know -- the laid-back country style, the jokes, the calm exterior -- without turning him into a caricature.

The fourth character is Lizzy's assistant, Ivy (Joy Jones). Jones is particularly effective in two scenes: when she narrates the horrors of a physical attack and when she helps Lizzy create a dress for Mary Lincoln, layer by layer, piece by piece.

The set, by Donald Eastman, represents a large, institutional room with dirty walls. All the furniture of the Lincolns' glorious past (chiffonier, trunks, suitcases, a cradle) are heaped in a huge pile stage right. Stage left are a few chairs, a table.

Merrily Murray-Walsh's dresses for Mary Lincoln are elegant masterworks, presumably patterned after Keckly's own designs.

For all its seriousness, "Mary T. & Lizzy K." contains plenty of humor. Despite a few flecks of dry exposition, Thompson has created a compelling portrait of history. His "Mary T. & Lizzy K." is an excellent start to Arena's program dedicated to the lives of American presidents.