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Vol. LXI, No. 20
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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"LAYING ON OF HANDS": Dr. McFarland (Dennis Parlato) practices a particularly manipulative sort of therapy on Mrs. Packard (Kathryn Meisle), who suffers psychological, physical, and verbal abuse during her three-year stay in a mid-nineteenth century mental institution, in Emily Mann's "Mrs. Packard," a world premiere at McCarter's Berlind Theatre through June 10.

Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard Battles the Forces of Oppression in World Premiere Historical Drama at McCarter’s Berlind

Donald Gilpin

The sound of the slamming metal door reverberates loudly and harshly as a leitmotiv, sending shivers through the audience at Emily Mann’s Mrs.Packard, currently playing in its world premiere at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. The metallic grille that encloses Mrs. Packard in the prison-like, 1860 Insane Asylum characterizes the whole production, from the austere set and lighting to the darkly clad, iron-willed demeanors of her husband (who consigns her to the institution) and the hospital officials (who deliver further abuses).

Mrs. Packard is based on a true story and derived from trial transcripts, Elizabeth Packard’s own writing, and an interweaving of the extensive research and fertile imagination of Ms. Mann. Punctuated by manic laughter and shrieks of pain, it is a grim tale of the brutal injustices of nineteenth century mental health care and in particular of the treatment of women. It is about a kind of religious fanaticism that deprives human beings of essential human freedoms. It is certainly about insanity, but most conspicuously the insanity of the powerful, of the domineering decision-makers, in contrast with the touching humanity of the inmates of the asylum.

It is also a heroic tale of one woman — a kindred spirit with Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll House, Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” — who stands up against her husband and the powerful, corrupt system; suffers deeply for her outspoken defiance; but gains a certain nobility in her determination to assert herself and her beliefs as an independent woman in a male-dominated society.

Associations with corporate America, the government, the military and our educational, penal, and medical institutions resonate here — wherever power corrupts, whistle-blowers are suppressed, and women still have to fight for equal status.

“In America we are a free people,” Elizabeth Packard asserts near the end of her trial to legally establish her sanity, “and every citizen living under this government has a right to form his own opinions, and having formed them, he has a right to express his individual opinions wherever he may think proper. In America we do not lock up those with whom we disagree. And whosoever seeks to do so is a traitor to our flag and the cause which it represents.”

At any point during her three-year incarceration in the Jacksonville (Illinois) Insane Asylum, Mrs. Packard, accused of “moral perversity” for disagreeing with her husband, could have won her release and returned to her six beloved children. She only had to agree, or pretend to agree, with Mr. Packard’s strict Calvinist beliefs. He could not tolerate her private and public challenges to his authority, and his declaration of her insanity was sufficient justification, under Illinois law in 1860, for her incarceration. But Elizabeth remained true to her convictions and refused to give in, in spite of the brutal isolation and harsh conditions.

Emily Mann's Mrs. Packard will run through June 10 at McCarter's Berlind Theatre on University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit for reservations and further information.

The story is a fascinating and important one, and this polished production — directed also by Ms. Mann, with a vibrant, sympathetic Kathryn Meisle in the title role and a first-rate supporting cast — tells that story clearly and authoritatively, graphically detailing the horrors of the mental ward in dramatic counterpoint with voices from Elizabeth’s Packard’s trial.

Despite the many virtues on display here, however, audiences may not enjoy this experience. The world of Mrs. Packard is relentlessly bleak. Though the play tells a story that needs to be told, at times the rich history and polemic overburden the drama.

The title character does succeed in establishing positive connections with fellow inmates and she eventually triumphs in gaining public attention for her own plight and the sufferings of other victims of the institution, but the price she pays is a high one. Not surprisingly the sampling of humanity on display here is dour and dispiriting.

Dennis Parlato creates a complex Dr. McFarland, the smooth, manipulative superintendent of the insane asylum. Strongly attracted to Elizabeth, McFarland offers her hope as a sympathetic ally but ultimately betrays her and retreats behind the authority of his position.

John Vennema is convincing as Elizabeth’s inflexibly religious husband, smarting from his wife’s public questioning of his beliefs and unable to allow her any thoughts independent from his own. Fiana Toibin plays a fierce, power-hungry asylum matron; Julie Boyd offers a refreshing note of human compassion as the matron of the notorious 8th ward for the violent and hopelessly insane; and the redoubtable Georgine Hall provides a wise, heroic, defiant model of strength through suffering as the much-abused patient Mrs. Stockton (“You are sane, Elizabeth. Keep saying that to yourself over and over. I am sane, I am sane.”).

Molly Regan, Jeff Brooks, Robin Chadwick, and a capable ensemble take on a variety of additional roles as fellow inmates (mostly women who, like Mrs. Packard, have been locked away by their husbands), witnesses at Mrs. Packard’s trial, and asylum officials.

Eugene Lee’s sober setting, Jeff Croiter’s dim lighting, and Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s authentic, mostly colorless costumes fittingly complement the gloomy tone of the proceedings.

Ms. Mann, also playwright and director of the highly acclaimed Greensboro (A Requiem), Execution of Justice, and Having Our Say, among others, explores explosive new historical territory here. She branches out from her usual reliance on the actual words of her historical figures to compose a script that is as much her own imaginative creation of lines and characters as it is the actual words and people of Elizabeth Packard’s life.

“My plays,” Ms. Mann explains, “often are about giving voice to the voiceless. Elizabeth’s voice was not only silenced in her own day, but like many women, her story has nearly disappeared from history.” Voiceless no more, Elizabeth Packard speaks loudly and clearly, intelligently, darkly, and persuasively in Emily Mann’s powerful production — at the Berlind Theatre through June 10, then at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. from June 16-24.

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