"Lydie Marland in the Afterlife" Reinterprets the Life of Ponca City's Controversial First Lady
In 2009 poet and playwright Isabella Russell-Ides and her husband were returning to Dallas after visiting family in Kansas. “We saw a sign on I-35 advertising the Marland Mansion,” says the playwright. “We visited the mansion and fell in love with its beauty and its history.” The result was a play written about Lydie Marland that reinterprets the life of Ponca City's iconic and controversial first lady. "Russell-Ides said it was the broken marble statue, one made in Lydie’s youth that had been supposedly destroyed before she disappeared, that made her fall in love with the story," says Mary L. Clark. “She called it 'a case of broken identity.'”
Ponca Playhouse will be presenting the premier of a two-act version of Russell-Ides play "Lydie Marland in the Afterlife" this summer as part of the "Oklahoma Pride" series. Ponca Playhouse's production will be the world premier of an expanded version of the original play presented at "The Festival of Independent Theatres" in Dallas, Texas in May, 2013. This expanded version was written especially for production by Ponca Playhouse by playwright Isabella Russell-Ides. The play will be sponsored and produced by Hugh Pickens and Dr. S. J. Pickens.
Who Was Lydie Marland?
The basic facts of Lydie Marland's life are not in dispute. Lydie was born in poverty in Flourtown, Pennsylvania in 1900, the second child of Margaret Reynolds (Collins) and George Frederick Roberts. Her parents decided to give Lydie and her brother George up for adoption as teenagers by their maternal aunt and uncle, Virginia and Ernest Whitworth Marland, who were both childless and fabulously wealthy from his success in the oil business in Ponca City, Oklahoma. When E. W. Marland's first wife Virginia Marland became ill and died in 1926, Lydie took on the duties of mistress of the house at Marland Grand Home on Grand Ave. Two years after Virginia Marland died, E. W. annulled Lydie's adoption and E. W. and Lydie married in 1928. Lydie was 28 and E. W. was 54. Lydie Roberts Marland enjoyed volatile times and drastic changes in fortune with her husband: he lost much of his money in 1928; she accompanied him to Washington, DC after he was elected to the US Congress in 1932, and to the Oklahoma governor's mansion as his First Lady in 1934.
After his gubernatorial term, they lived in the chauffeur's cottage of their former mansion and sold the big house and grounds. Following E. W.'s death in 1941, Lydie Marland became more reclusive. In the 1950s, she disappeared from Oklahoma for more than a decade. From wife of one of the wealthiest men in the world to wayward bag lady, she was lost for twenty-two years in the landscape of America. She returned to Ponca City in her later years, and succeeded in having the Marlands' Palace on the Prairies purchased and preserved by the city.
In the play Lydie Marland in the Afterlife, based largely on the The Marland Tragedy by Kim Brumley, Isabella Russell-Ides postulates a relationship with sculptor Jo Davidson that resulted in a child that was given up for adoption. In this version of Lydie's story, EW marries Lydie to help cover up the scandal. "Lydie was no gold-digger," writes Christopher Stephen Soden. "Ides makes it clear that from the time Lydie (and her teenage brother George) were adopted by their aunt and uncle, they were treated to extravagance beyond comprehension, after a life of struggle and impoverishment. It’s implied she simply wanted her dazzling, blissful new existence to continue, without interruption. Her doting uncle ushered her into a completely different milieu, filled with parties, travel, luxury and pleasure. Lydie Marland makes it easy to understand why she was willing to wed her adoptive dad and uncle."
Cast and Directors
In a first for Ponca Playhouse, the play will have two casts and two directors who will each present their own interpretation of the play with separate casts of two actresses who will appear in performances on alternate days.
Sam Stuart is directing Cast A with "Old Lydie" played by Meghann Borum and "Young Lydie" played by Faith Greenhagen. Cast A will perform on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Ryan Brown will direct Cast B with "Old Lydie" played by Morgan Ham and "Young Lydie" played by Shelby Cargil. Cast B will perform on Fridays and Sunday matinees.
About the Play
In the play the lights come up on the heroine returning to consciousness shortly after her death. Lydie had been a vagabond for decades after the economic downfall and death of her oil-baron husband. As she begins to recall her glorious early days, her younger self enters, an apparition in her marcelled hairdo and white frock. The playwright Russell-Ides takes a novel approach to the mystery of what awaits us on the other side and constructs a believable journey that leaves room for hope, redemption, and reflection on a life lived.
Playwright Russell-Ides makes clear that Lydie was no gold-digger. But from the time Lydie (and her teenage brother George) were adopted by their aunt and uncle, Mary Virginia and E. W. Marland, they were treated to extravagance beyond comprehension, after a life of struggle and impoverishment. It’s implied Lydie simply wanted her dazzling, blissful new existence to continue without interruption. Her doting uncle ushered her into a completely different milieu, filled with parties, travel, luxury and pleasure. “Lydie Marland in the Afterlife” makes it easy to understand why she was willing to wed her adoptive dad and uncle.
Russell-Ides’ play, in which the older, dead Lydie confronts her younger self, is a fascinating rumination on choices and tries to answer the question, “'If you could give yourself advice from years of experience, what would you say?” but really it answers, “What would your younger self say back?” And would you even trust old-you?
“Lydie Marland in the Afterlife” is an engrossing, amusing, richly depicted portrait of a woman who was flawed, and just as subject to the cruelties of fate as the rest of us. More than just creating a sympathetic case for Lydie Marland, Isabella Russell-Ides draws us into her exhilarating life, revealing a woman who jumped in headfirst, whether she was on a European spending spree, fox hunt, protest march or cleaning motel bedrooms. Whatever the outcome she embraced the world with sentience and verve.
About the Playwright
Isabella Russell-Ides is an American playwright who received the 2008 Critics Forum Award for her play Coco & Gigi. Russell-Ides has also received critical acclaim for her works, Leonard's Car ("Outstanding New Play", 2009 Nora's Playhouse, NYC), Fortune Cookie Smash (2007 Best of Fest, Frontera). Russell-Ides is noted for the poetic and heightened language of her texts. Russell-Ides is also a published poet, having written Getting Dangerously Close To Myself (Slough Press).