Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: January 27, 2010
It's Mad to be You
There's no escaping the asylum-based drama of The Insanity of Mary Girard
Despite the setting in 1790s Philadelphia, the action feels as though Franz Kafka had rewritten The Snake Pit: raging paranoia amid raving inmates. Instead, Lanie Robertson's taut one-act drama The Insanity of Mary Girard-the current Appleseed Productions effort at Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.-comes with a clearly articulated subtext to give us much to chew on even as it beguiles us. Written to premiere during the Bicentennial summer of 1976, Mary Girard was supposed to get us thinking about how times have changed since Independence. Yet Robertson's artistic ambitions and director Deborah Pearson's impassioned craft will hold audiences who don't cotton to the play's point of view.
Lanie Robertson is a guy with an academic background, neither of which should be held against him. In this part of the world he's best known for Lady Day in the Emerson Bar and Grill, about the death of Billie Holliday that served as a splendid vehicle for local actress Jacque Washington on different occasions in the early 1990s. His Alfred Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe, on the photographer and artist, has appeared on public television and in regional theater. Those are enough to tell us that Robertson does not do teaching docudramas but instead thinks that American history is full of really interesting people, especially when we look around the edges.
The historical Mary Girard was the wife of Stephen Girard, one of the wealthiest men in the new Republic and the benefactor of many good works in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia. In 1976 one might have expected a patriotic playwright to puff him up a bit instead of telling us that a huge skeleton crowded his family closet. As Stephen and Mary had not been able to have children, her pregnancy certainly looked as though she had been consorting with somebody outside the marriage bed. We can ignore the objections of Wikipedia, disputing Robertson, arguing that Stephen had other grounds than Mary's adultery for locking her up. For a woman of social station and education to find herself in such a plight is sufficient to launch the drama.
Before the beginning of the action, even before the audience enters the theater, a thin young woman in 18th-century dress but barefoot is sitting in a chair at the center of the stage with a box over her head. This, we learn, is a "tranquility chair," designed to reduce an inmate's anxieties, or at least her screaming. Treatment of mental disorders was not yet a subject of much experimentation, but the chair had been devised by none other than Benjamin Rush, arguably the best-known physician in the new nation. The young woman is Mary Girard (Katharine Gibson), who asks, quite reasonably, how she happens to find herself in this place and how she can get out.
In the playwright's boldest move, the other inmates are seen first as nameless and (almost) genderless and known only as the Furies, numbered one through five. Two are male, and one speaks with a comic Irish accent. "Fury," of course, is a Classical reference, and the five speak a kind of choral poetry in which information is broken up into parts to be delivered in syncopated rhythms as the members step in and out of Mary's personal space. Director Pearson, serving as her own choreographer, achieves some of the play's finest moments in these encounters, poetic, dark and unexpectedly moving.
Taste and restraint are important to storytelling here. Contemporary audiences could not bear to look at an actual madhouse of the time, whose hideousness appears in William Hogarth paintings. Pearson and lighting designer Terence LaCasse have wisely opted for a visual style that owes more to French painter Theodore Gericault, who portrayed the insane as haunted and unknowable.
The Furies, alas, offer Mary no comfort and instead provide lessons in Feminism 101 about how limited women's rights were in the generation that wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Mary's husband Stephen, not yet seen, is her legal guardian, and can confine her to the hospital on his signature, just as if she were a child or a slave. In life Mary would have known this, but Robertson knows we need to hear it. Her arguments that might pluck our heartstrings- that she was married at 16 without knowing what she was getting into, that the marriage was loveless, that Stephen was unfaithful, even that he abused her-carry no weight in court.
Not that Mary Girard is an exercise in male-bashing. Different Furies take on offstage speaking roles without change of costume. Mary's mother (Theresa Constantine) tells her daughter to expect little maternal sympathy as the daughter brought the plight upon herself by marrying above her station. She counsels accepting Stephen's brutish behavior as living with God's law. Even worse is the response of the family housekeeper, Polly (Kate Deferio), Stephen's mistress, who sees herself as Mary's more adroit sexual rival.
After such a buildup one might expect that Stephen (John Gross), shod in new shoes and not just a Fury taking on an additional role, should be the MCP (male chauvinist pig) from hell-but he isn't. His restrained, apparent reasonableness is not intended to be an anticlimax, however. His understated lines make the most sense when heard in this context of the play's first performance in 1976. Seen from the time of the Bicentennial, Mary Girard's barbarous treatment was not a product of Ivan the Terrible's Russia or the Spanish Inquisition but rather America in the full flower of the Enlightenment, during the first Washington presidency. The society that expanded rights to free white males did not yet have time for the weak and the vulnerable, slaves, the mentally ill or women.
Katharine Gibson, fondly remembered at Simply New Theatre for the title role in Agnes of God and as Mary Jane Morkan in James Joyce's The Dead, is one of the best young performers around. Indeed, director Pearson might well have been reluctant to take on Mary Girard without her. Although more acted upon than acting, her increasing horror at what society and the madhouse have inflicted upon her, including the confinement of her supposedly tainted child, is the engine at the emotional center of the action. Never merely a victim or a complainer, hers is an ever-growing consciousness of what becomes a life sentence.
All of the Furies, including Dan Williams and Binaifer Dabu who also essay separate speaking roles, contribute mightily to Mary Girard's affecting but somber mood, some of the most polished 90 minutes ever seen at Appleseed.
This production runs through Feb. 6. See Times Table for information.