by Mike Hoban
Mrs. Packard – Written by Emily Mann; Directed by Emily Ranii; Scenic Design by Jon Savage; Lighting Design by Ed Intemann; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Sound Design by Don Tindall. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theatre in a co-production with Playhouse Creatures Theatre Co. of NYC at the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge through April 9
When I was a boy in middle school, I was a huge fan of the B horror films that ran on Saturday afternoon showcases like Creature Double Feature. There weren’t many classics in the “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” vein, but there was plenty of silly dreck like “Attack of the Giant Leeches” and “The Thing That Wouldn’t Die” that were more laughable than frightening. But there was one film that truly did horrify me, and that was “Bedlam”, a low rent Boris Karloff vehicle that told the story of a woman wrongly committed to an insane asylum in Victorian England known as Bedlam – which was depicted as a Hollywood backlot version of Hell on Earth. What made it so terrifying was that while there no traditional movie monsters, Bedlam was a real place, and the monsters were the evil men running the asylum.
So when Elizabeth Packard (Olivia D’Ambrosio, who gives a powerhouse performance) is being dragged off to the “looney bin” in 1860 to be cured of the mental illness of disagreeing with her religiously disturbed husband (Steven Barkhimer), we know she’s not going to McLean’s for a few weeks of CBT, music therapy and some gentle yoga, but instead entering the hell of our worst nightmares. Packard is the titular character of “Mrs. Packard,” the riveting drama being mounted by Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures Theatre Co. (of NYC) at the Multicultural Center in Cambridge.
When we first meet her, Packard does appear to be a bit mad – as any sane person would be upon being sentenced to a 19th century “nut house”. It is 1860, where women are still pretty much regarded as their husband’s property, and in the State of Illinois, a husband could have his wife committed without either a public hearing or her consent. So after years of disagreements, centering principally on child-rearing and religious doctrine with her Calvinist preacher husband Theophilus Packard (she even left his congregation to worship with the Methodists!) he has her locked up in the Jacksonville (Illinois) Insane Asylum, leaving behind her six children.
The next day she meets with Dr. Andrew McFarland (Joseph W. Rodriguez), the asylum’s superintendent. She is still visibly upset, and he offers the beautiful patient a new type of “hands on” massage treatment that looks wildly inappropriate, but nonetheless, appears to work. Once calm, the two talk at length, and he is soon captivated by her keen mind and benevolent spirit as well as her looks, so he provides her with a pen and paper to record her thoughts for the two to discuss. Later, despite his growing feelings for her, he begins to advocate for her release, contingent upon the condition that she knuckle under to her husband and essentially keep her mouth shut in matters of faith and family.
As she is considering the terms of her release, she is also recording the horrific conditions of the asylum in her journal. After what appears to be a mania-fueled night of writing, she decides that it might be a good idea to share them with Dr. McFarland. Her ward mates (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Elaine Vaan Hogue) beg her to reconsider this questionable plan of action, but convinced that McFarland’s love for her will allow him to see her crystal clear reasoning – leading, no doubt, to a reformation of the asylum – she shares her thoughts with him. Not surprisingly, he becomes enraged and orders ward supervisor Mrs. Bonner (an enthusiastically cruel Annabel Clapper) to “take Mrs. Packard upstairs to the 8th Ward. Treat her as you do the maniacs.” And the real horror (as well as the path to her salvation) begins.
“Mrs Packard” is an inspiring tale, and in lesser hands than D’Ambrosio, director Emily Ranii and the Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures companies, could have devolved into a (grittier) version of a Lifetime Channel movie. In fact, when it first opened in 2007 it was derided by some as being overly melodramatic and for portraying the protagonist as being too saint-like, and doesn’t appear to have been produced much since.
However, D’Ambrosio (who was born to play this role), creates a fully human Packard, allowing her character’s spiritually-driven desire to do the right thing to sometimes veer into an obliviousness to her surroundings that seems certain to derail her capacity to save herself, her children or her fellow inmates. And there are times when that single-minded behavior (such as when she not only refuses to cave in to the terms of her release but also insists that her husband admit his wrongdoing) really does seem like a form of madness, and D’Ambrosio’s performance captures that ambiguity beautifully.
The large cast is deep and talented, with many of the production’s smaller roles being portrayed by some of Boston’s finest fringe and small theater actors. The choice of the Multicultural Center was truly inspired, lending itself well to the 19th century setting of the American Bedlam. For those of us were eagerly anticipating the re-uniting of the companies that brought us the mind-blowing production of 2014’s “The Libertine”, the wait has been well worth it. This is a great production, and shouldn’t be missed. For more info, go to: http://www.bridgerep.org/