First Do Harm: “Mrs. Packard”

Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin; Mrs. Packard and inmates.

Presented by Bridge Repertory Theatre & Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company
Written by Emily Mann
Directed by Emily Ranii

March 15 – April 9, 2017
Multicultural Arts Center
East Cambridge, MA
Bridge Rep on Facebook
Playhouse Creatures on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

Trigger Warnings: Torture, domestic abuse, nudity, implied horror, gaslighting

Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.”
– Traditional nursery rhyme about “Peter” who couldn’t control his (allegedly sexually adventurous) wife so he killed her.  

(East Cambridge, MA) The more things change; the more they stay the same. Mrs. Packard is about how a panel of straight, white men made uninformed decisions on a woman’s health without her consent. Sound familiar? It should. It’s 2017, and treating women with respect is still a revolutionary act.

In 1860, Mrs. Elizabeth Packard (Olivia D’Ambrosio) disagreed with her husband’s Calvinist beliefs. For this, and such humiliations as daring to speak her mind, Mr. Packard (Steven Barkhimer), the father of their six children, had her institutionalized in Jacksonville Insane Asylum. She was abducted from her own home, declared insane and forced into the asylum. She spent three years there. Mrs. Packard is an account of Elizabeth Packard’s experiences, and subsequent legal battle to prove her sanity.

Audience members should note that this production is historically accurate within its means. Asylums of the past were not the care centers of today. They were little more than prisons to put the unwanted. Mrs. Packard contains potentially triggering physical and emotional violence. It is not suitable for children.

This play is exhausting. It expects much from its audience. We must watch as the women of the Jacksonville Insane Asylum are treated inhumanely. We can only listen to the tortured screams of the battered, gas-lit inmates. We aren’t allowed to speak on their behalf. Emily Mann’s writing overwhelms us with trauma over and over. We reach a numbed state in which such treatment becomes “normalized.” For the easily provoked, Mrs. Packard will be deeply unsettling.

At the root of this production are some exceptional performances; Annabel Capper as the brutal Mrs. Bonner is rigid as marble, and cold as ice. She captures the raw cruelty of this despicable criminal with shocking ease. The tap, tap of her boots against the floors is enough to send shivers up the spine.  

Steven Barkhimer, and Joseph W. Rodriguez (as Dr. McFarland) are detestable but they are human. Rather, it is their firm conviction in their own absolute authority that makes them monstrous. They characterize their roles with enough intelligence to be relatable, but such apathy to be villainous. They are the very reason women exclaim that men are so “different when we’re alone.”

Elaine Vaan Hogue nearly broke my heart as the silenced Mrs. Stockton.

D’Ambrosio carries the show with her tour de force performance in the title role. Mrs. Packard is an anxious, overwhelmed woman under siege. She’s attacked by the very people who’ve vowed to take the best care of her. D’Ambrosio plays her with great respect, dignity, and impressive stamina. It can be difficult to appreciate the nuances of D’Ambrosio’s performance as Mann turns the drama up to 11 midway through the first act. Yet, D’Ambrosio paces Packard’s progression with appropriate solemnity. Actors should consider the physical demands of this script before attempting.

The ensemble displays equal amounts professional discretion, and oddball indecision in their many roles. The court scenes are severe; the characters interesting. Meanwhile, the group asylum scenes contain some hardcore “acting.” The scenes were so chewy, they could be wrapped and sold individually at intermission.

Lastly, in such a small role, Matthew Zahnzinger gives us the levity we’ve been clamoring for all the show long. His voice of reason pierces the insanity, and gives us some respite.

The sound design by Don Tindall and lighting design by E.D. Intemann collaborate to make Mrs. Packard a macabre experience. The resulting product is reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow levels of gothic creepery.

If Elizabeth Packard was guilty of anything, it was of threatening the fragile egos of impotent men. She was an outspoken intellectual; one of those liberals threatening the very fiber of morality. She couldn’t be silenced so her husband banished her to a place where women were routinely ignored for their socially unacceptable outbursts. Her work to ensure women’s and institutionalized persons’ rights is proof that a free, just, and tolerant existence is the future that liberals want.

Queen’s Note:
we elected a thin-skinned bigot to the office of the President dead set on turning our “democracy” into a fascist, totalitarian oligarchy dominated by the 1%. His plan to slash the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities is HERE. Trump is a monster. His policies, when he names them, are destructive. His narcissistic behavior is more so. Fight him. And, for the love of all that’s sacred, keep creating. If you need help, ask for it. Our existence is our resistance. May the force be with you. – KD

Sign the petition to protect the National Endowment HERE.

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