Based on a true story, “Mrs. Packard” tells the tale of Elizabeth Packard, who in the 1860s was placed in an insane asylum by her husband, the Reverend Theophilus Packard. The Packards had been married over 20 years and had six children, but because his wife began to express more openly her disagreement with his religious views, Packard had her incarcerated, a course of action that was perfectly legal in mid-19th-century Illinois. The play, written and directed by McCarter Theater’s artistic director, Emily Mann, closes McCarter’s season in the Berlind Theater.
Mrs. Packard (Kathryn Meisle) is terribly concerned about what will happen to her children; Mr. Packard (John Vennema), however, a strict Calvinist, finds his wife’s seditious (read: independent) views more dangerous than his inability to take care of their children. And everything that goes wrong with his family after she is incarcerated is of course her fault.
The asylum is a nightmare. The patients are abused by the staff, often brutally; nothing is done to help the patients recover; and the worst cases live in total filth, with no toilet facilities and no access to water. Dr. McFarland (Dennis Parlato), the superintendent of the asylum, is portrayed as an elegant and patronizing man, who would, no surprise here, see his female patients as inferior. He occasionally uses the laying on of hands as a form of treatment, and when he starts this treatment with Mrs. Packard, sexual elements seem to come into play. This suggestion is supported by the strength of his reaction when she turns out to be less malleable than he had expected, and he turns against her.
Patients are of course not allowed pen and paper, but Mrs. Packard manages to evade asylum rules and finds a way to record much of what is happening. She finally wins her freedom by boldly asking a group of visiting trustees if she can speak to them for 10 minutes and, much to Dr. McFarland’s horror, convinces them that she is not insane. But even then her husband still manages to keep her locked up in the house and not let the children near her. Eventually, she manages to achieve her freedom and goes on to write several books, fighting for the rights of women and the mentally ill.
For those who find it hard to believe that this dismal melodrama is a true story, the program notes include the text of the original law that allowed Mr. Packard to have his wife “detained...without the evidence of insanity required in other cases,” as well as an excerpt from Mrs. Packard’s writings.
During Mrs. Packard’s incarceration we get brief and puzzling snippets of a trial taking place on a balcony above the hospital room, a trial in which a jury is being asked to decide if Mrs. Packard is in fact insane. The judge calls the court to order at the beginning of the play, and the verdict is announced at the end. Only toward the end of the second (and final) act, however, does the audience realize that this case of Packard vs. Packard, which actually starts only after Mrs. Packard is back at home, is what we have been seeing throughout the play. We also learn that Mrs. Packard, imprisoned in her house, has smuggled a letter to one of her children who gets it to a neighbor, who takes it to a magistrate.
The cast is wonderful. Kathryn Meisle triumphs as a good-natured, highly articulate woman placed in unspeakable circumstances, but that is not to slight the exceptional performances of Dennis Parlato as Dr. McFarland, John Vennema as the dreadful Mr. Packard; Fiana Toibin as Mrs. Bonner, the brutal matron of the asylum; and Georgine Hall as Mrs. Stockton, one of the saner inmates. Multiple roles are played by Julie Boyd, Molly Regan, Jeff Brooks, Robin Chadwick, and an ensemble of five other actors.
Eugene Lee’s set is striking. The hospital has metal walls and gates that can be noisily opened and closed to underline the abuse of the patients. The trial takes place on a metal balcony above the hospital wards, but when we are in the Packards’ house, the walls are stucco.
For most of us this ghastly story is far from our experience but the play and the production make it seem very real and all too believable. “Mrs. Packard,” supported by the Kennedy Center for the Arts, will go on to Washington after the McCarter run is finished. The play will surely have a life beyond McCarter and the Kennedy Center, and perhaps as it goes on to other venues, Mann might consider tightening the first act, which seems to dwell too long on Dr. McFarland’s possible flirtation with Mrs. Packard and delays the forward motion of the action.
One aside but an important one: While I realize that different theaters have different late-seating policies, it is particularly distracting at this production, in McCarter’s Berlind Theater, when the ushers seat people after the play has begun. They destroy a good-sized segment of the audience’s ability not just to see the stage but to concentrate on what is happening, no small matter in a play that asks for your full attention.
Mrs. Packard, through Sunday, June 10, McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place, World premiere of drama by Emily Mann. $35 to $48. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org.