BWW Review: MRS. PACKARD: Nevertheless, She Persisted

BWW Review: MRS. PACKARD: Nevertheless, She Persisted

Mrs. Packard

Written by Emily Mann, Directed by Emily Ranii; Scenic Design, Jon Savage; Costume Design, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design, E.D. Intemann; Sound Design, Don Tindall; Properties, Esme Allen & Bridgette Hayes; Fight Direction, Ryan Winkles; Choreography, Mikaela Saccoccio; Production Stage Manager, Dominique D. Buford; Assistant Stage Manager, Hannah Mitchell; Dramaturgy, Sophie Greenspan & Rebecca Miller

CAST (in alphabetical order): Jacob Athyal, Steven Barkhimer, Shanaé Burch, Annabel Capper, Eric Cheung, JorDan Clark, Olivia D'Ambrosio, Thomas Grenon, Kinsaed Damaine James, Caroline Keeler, June Kfoury, Sarah Newhouse, Joseph Rodriguez, Mikaela Saccoccio, Jeffrey Thomas, Elaine Vaan Hogue, Ryan Winkles, Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Matthew Zahnzinger

Performances through April 9 by Bridge Repertory Theater, a co-production with Playhouse Creatures, at Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second Street, East Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-577-1400 or www.bridgerep.org

While the Civil War was being waged to settle the epic national dispute over slavery, another battle over civil rights played out in Illinois between a strict, Calvinist minister and his outspoken wife whose religious beliefs conflicted with those of her husband. Unable to control her dissent, and fearing the impact of her unorthodox ideas on their children and his standing with his congregation, Reverend Theophilus Packard declared Mrs. Elizabeth Packard to be insane and had her involuntarily committed to the Jacksonville (Illinois) Insane Asylum, under the care of its Superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland. Over the course of the next three years, she fought for her release, steadfastly proclaiming her sanity while refusing to disavow her beliefs to satisfy the demands of her husband or her doctor.

There are numerous issues raised in Emily Mann's Mrs. Packard, many that make it strikingly relevant today. Chief among them is the idea of an individual's right of opinion and free expression, intertwined with equal rights for women. Bridge Repertory Theater concludes its fourth season with Mann's (Having Our Say) play which had its world premiere in May, 2007, at the McCarter Theatre at Princeton University where she is Artistic Director and Resident Playwright. It marks Bridge Rep's first production at their new home, the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge, and the design team has effectively utilized the architectural features of the cavernous hall to tell the story. The ground-level space, divided by long swaths of movable sheet-like curtains, suggests the various wards of the asylum, while a wraparound balcony-level walkway is ideal for the scenes offering testimony from the court case of Packard vs. Packard, during which a jury of twelve men decides the issue of Mrs. Packard's sanity or insanity.

Under the direction of Emily Ranii, a cast of eighteen actors, playing about two dozen characters, stages a vivid and compelling interpretation of Mann's play. The inmates in the asylum (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Elaine Vaan Hogue, JorDan Clark, Caroline Keeler, June Kfoury) realistically display varying degrees of sanity and a range of behaviors, the worst of which might have you fear for your safety. Their overseers, Mrs. Bonner (Annabel Capper) and Mrs. Tenney (Shanaé Burch), are respectively sadistic and vicious, or doggedly caring, while the Superintendent (Joseph Rodriguez, excellent) maintains an aura of infallibility. Reverend Packard (Steven Barkhimer) is dogmatic and domineering, yet not without an aspect of frustration and ineptitude vis-a-vis his challenging wife. Under questioning by a no-nonsense prosecutor (Thomas Grenon), Ryan Winkles and Sarah Newhouse represent all of the witnesses, including doctors, relatives, and neighbors, who testify at Elizabeth's sanity hearing, expertly distinguishing among them by altering their body language, their attitudes, and vocal tones.

And then there is Elizabeth Packard herself, brought to life more than a century after her death, in a tour de force performance by Olivia D'Ambrosio, the founder and Producing Artistic Director of Bridge Rep. In the role that requires her to be onstage for most of the duration of the two-hour play, she exhibits great stamina, repeatedly bouncing back from the physical challenges of being manhandled by attendants and thrown to the floor more times than I can remember. She seamlessly shifts in and out of Elizabeth's mood changes, her moments of mania and calm, her clear-eyed rebelliousness, and her savvy submission cum manipulation of the powers that be. Throughout the play, Elizabeth's intelligence and the contents of her heart are on display in D'Ambrosio's fierce portrayal, drawing us to her cause, but she never tips her hand as to whether or not she will succeed in her fight for her rights. At times, Elizabeth is so broken by the system that her recovery seems hopeless, yet she rises like the phoenix time and time again.

It is important to understand the context of Elizabeth's plight. In 1851, the State of Illinois passed into law the following: Married women and infants who, in the judgment of the medical superintendent are evidently insane or distracted, may be entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband of the woman or the guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases. When members of the asylum's Board of Trustees visit the institution, Elizabeth manages to inveigle herself into a brief meeting with them to plead her case. The head man, Mr. Blackman (Matthew Zahnzinger) is charmed and intrigued by her, enough to take her part and pull rank against a very disappointed Dr. McFarland. However, her strength and constitution notwithstanding, after persistently battling both Theophilus and McFarland, Elizabeth's fate rests in the hands of the 12-member jury.

Mann's well-written script provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective of life inside a marriage in the 1860s, as well as life inside the asylum. The designers (Jon Savage, scenic; Chelsea Kerl, costume; E.D. Intemann, lighting; Don Tindall, sound) combine their artistry to add to the verisimilitude, more than sufficiently adding to our discomfort with the archaic scenario dramatized by the play. There is solace in the fact that Elizabeth Packard became an advocate for the rights of women and people accused of insanity and to know that her work resulted in the passage of bills to help rectify the situation. Once again, Bridge Repertory Theater and Playhouse Creatures have collaborated to create an effective and important piece of art, giving well-deserved voice to Mrs. Packard.

Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin (Olivia D'Ambrosio)

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