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The Beatification of Mrs. Packard : Emily Mann Pens a Stirring Old Fashioned Social Melodrama

Also see Bob's review of Henry V

Dennis Parlato and Kathryn Meisle
In 1851, the state of Illinois enacted a law (similar to laws in several other states) that allowed that "married women ... , 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 ... without the evidence of insanity required in other cases."

It is this law which led to the true story on which author-director Emily Mann has based her new play Mrs. Packard. With its invented scenes and dialogue, streamlining and juxtaposition of events, and composite characters, this play is no way a documentary, unlike some of Mann's other work. However, it does hew closely to the historical record.

Mann's script has neither the depth, complexity of character, sufficient theatrical invention, nor brilliance of language to transcend her standard issue melodramatic story. However, both as a socially conscious melodrama which arouses strong outrage in the viewer and as a valuable history lesson with contemporary relevance, Mrs. Packard is informative, lively and engrossing.

In 1861, the Reverend Theophilus Packard had Elizabeth, his perfectly rational wife of 22 years and the mother of his six children, taken by force from their home and committed to the Illinois State Hospital (insane asylum). The well-educated Elizabeth had come to openly question the strict Calvinist beliefs of her husband, especially his belief in the inherently evil nature of man. The final straw in convincing the rigid, self-righteous Theo of Elizabeth's insanity was her having stood up during his Church service and requested permission from her fellow congregants to worship with the nearby Methodist congregation. When they met her request with silence, Elizabeth walked out of her husband's church and went across the street to the Methodist church where she continued to worship until her forcible commitment.

The bulk of Mrs. Packard transpires in the asylum where, in true melodramatic fashion, Elizabeth and the other patients are subjected to increasingly abusive treatment. At first, Elizabeth is placed in a ward with other rational, wrongly committed women. She is essentially well treated by the asylum superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland, who is taken with her looks and intelligence (McFarland does abuse his position by adding inappropriate caresses to his healing massages).

McFarland urges Elizabeth to admit that she has been acting irrationally, and to accept the authority of her husband. He then would release her to return home to parent her children. Elizabeth refuses to barter her values and integrity for her freedom. When she begins recording the abusive treatment and conditions which she observes in the asylum, McFarland confiscates her notes and personal possessions and instructs the sadistic asylum attendant, " Mrs. Bonner, take Mrs. Packard upstairs to the 8th Ward. Treat her as you do the maniacs."

The second act begins as Elizabeth is brought into the 8th Ward. The women housed here are totally deranged, either unhinged and screaming incoherently, or lost within their own world. The filthy women, who have not bathed in years, are sitting in their own excrement which also covers the floor and lends a putrid odor to the ward. Here, Elizabeth finds a kindly and sympathetic, but ineffectual, attendant. She instantly turns this attendant into her willing assistant while she proceeds to clean up the other patients without missing a beat.

Later, after McFarland discovers that Elizabeth has again obtained paper and is keeping a record of her experiences, a straight-jacket, some water torture and solitary confinement will be added to her woes. Elizabeth's confinement lasts for three years, ending only after she is able to obtain the attention of visiting asylum overseers and convince them of her super sanity.

However, even then, Elizabeth's persecution continues. When she returns home, Theo locks her in an upstairs room and nails shut her windows. Fortunately, she is able to get a note describing her plight to a neighbor, and the 1864 trial to determine her sanity which frames and runs through Mrs. Packard ensues. Finally and effectively, American Graffiti-style, the characters inform us of the course of their post-trial lives.

Unfortunately, throughout the asylum sequences which comprise the bulk of Mrs. Packard, I kept thinking of a similarly plotted movie which made a strong impression on me when I saw it close to sixty years ago (it may have not been a very appropriate movie for a precocious nine year old). The thought was so pervasive that I searched for the 1948 New York Times review of The Snake Pit. The review contained the following description of that film:

"Olivia de Havilland stars as an outwardly normal young woman, married to loyal, kindly Mark Stevens. As de Havilland's behavior becomes more and more erratic, however, Stevens comes to the sad conclusion that she needs professional help. She is sent to an overcrowded state hospital for treatment - a curious set-up, in that, while de Havilland is treated with compassion by soft-spoken psychiatrist Leo Genn, she is sorely abused by resentful matrons and profoundly disturbed patients. Throughout the film, she is threatened with being clapped into "the snake pit" - an open room where the most severe cases are permitted to roam about and jabber incoherently - if she doesn't realign her thinking. In retrospect, it seems that de Havilland's biggest "crime" is that she wants to do her own thinking, and that she isn't satisfied with merely being a loving wife. While this subtext may not have been intentional, it's worth noting that de Havilland escapes permanent confinement only when she agrees to march to everyone else's beat."

There are ways to dramatize events which made for a highly praised "breakthrough" film in 1948, so that they do not make a 2007 play feel old fashioned, but Emily Mann has not yet found any here.

At one point, Mann shoehorns in a line that variations of which have always drawn hosannas at feminist gatherings, but it is so out of character that it draws inappropriate, mood-shattering laughter. It is spoken by Mrs. Tenney, the meek and decent attendant, after Elizabeth responds to her urging to submit to her husband in order to be able to be freed and returned to her children by asking, "You would have me lie?". Mrs. Tenney responds, "Yes, I suppose I would. Women have been doing it since the beginning of time".

One problem may be that Emily Mann is so smitten with the historical Elizabeth Packard that she has painted her as a saint and not a believable, three-dimensional human being. Surely, Packard must have been an at least a somewhat strident and stubborn woman with a fine touch of madness and fire. How else to account for her insistence on enduring the hellfire of being imprisoned in a squalid asylum, and being apart from her eighteen-month-old baby and four other children still living at home. Surely, fear, outrage and mental upset would accompany anyone being thrown into the 8th Ward and beyond. But not Mrs. Packard's Elizabeth. Except for when she is first placed into a straight-jacket and one tiny moment when she verbally expresses doubt as to her sanity, Elizabeth is always upbeat, calm, perfectly in control and prepared to make the best of her situation. Kathryn Meisle is always likeable in portraying the almost always firmly in control Elizabeth, but neither she nor her director seem to have considered portraying the pain and despair which Elizabeth Packard most assuredly faced.

Dennis Parlato is excellent as Dr. McFarland, the most three-dimensional character in view. Parlato embraces McFarland's moments of grace and doubt, but never fudges the steely evil which always will lead McFarland to place his perceived self-interest above honest decency. John C. Vennema hits all the right notes as Theophilus. Beneath a surface of pompous, bigoted stupidity, Vennema conveys the sense that Theo's despicable treatment of Elizabeth arises from a complex combination of true religious belief, fear, and resentment.

The large and fine ensemble is most ably led by Fiana Toibin as the sadistic attendant Mrs. Bonner and Julie Boyd as the meek one, Mrs. Tenney; and Molly Regan and Georgine Hall as sane victims of an unjust law.

Emily Mann has directed with clarity, power and pace. Her direction is abetted by the large, realistic and flexible set by Eugene Lee. Lee's unit set is so richly detailed and full of surprises that it never has the make-do feel of many such sets. Lee, a master of stagecraft, is at the top of his form here. Jennifer von Mayrhauser has provided the evocative period costumes.

Mrs. Packard continues performances (Eves.: Wed,/Thurs./Sun. 7:30 p.m.; Fri./Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats.: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. —No Eve. Perf. 6/10) through June 10, 2007 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online:

Mrs. Packard (world premiere) written and directed by Emily Mann

Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard……….....Kathryn Meisle
Dr. Andrew Mcfarland…………………… Dennis Parlato
Theophilus Packard……………………….John C. Vennema
Mrs. Bonner……………………………………..Fiana Toibin
Mrs. Tenney, Mrs. Sybil Dole……………………..Julie Boyd
Mrs. Chapman, Miss Sarah Rumsey,
Mrs. Blessing…………………………………..Molly Regan
Mrs. Stockton………………………………...Georgine Hall
Dr. J.W. Brown, Mr. Abijah Dole,
Dr. Duncanson, And Others……………………….Jeff Brooks
Mr. Josephus Smith, Mr. Haslet,
Mr. Blackman, And Others…………………Robin Chadwick

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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