Several years ago, McCarter Theater’s artistic director Emily Mann sent out an SOS to her friends and acquaintances to help her find a subject for her next playwriting project. “Have you heard any juicy gossip? Read anything in the paper? Come across an interesting story that someone tells you? Let me know.”

“I wanted (my next play) to be a drama, not just people sitting around talking,” says Mann in a phone interview. Her queries paid off when a friend was stumped by a New York Times crossword puzzle. The answer turned out to be “Elizabeth Parson Ware Packard.” She told Mann, “You’ve got to google this woman.” The seed was planted; “Mrs. Packard” begins previews on Friday, May 4, at McCarter’s Berlind Theater. Opening night is Friday, May 11.

“I’ve been working on it almost nonstop for two and a half years,” says Mann. As part of McCarter’s new play development program, the script has had a number of readings as well as a four-day workshop. “I feel we went into rehearsal with a very strong draft that we’re now polishing.” She describes the play as a “multi-layered piece with heightened theatricality and a large group of people on stage.” A company of 14 actors plays a number of roles. Mann is also directing the play. “It’s been a long and fascinating trip.”

In a McCarter publication, Mann outlines the story: “In 1863, after 21 years of marriage and six children, Elizabeth Packard’s minister husband has a team of henchmen abduct her and commit her to a lunatic asylum without proof of insanity, an act legal for the day. Elizabeth’s ‘insanity’ was that she disagreed publicly with her husband’s conservative Calvinist views.”

The Civil War was beginning and so was Mrs. Packard’s fight for freedom for herself, for all women, and justice for the people she met inside the institution. Mann says: “The abolition movement and women’s movement had common ground.”

Artistic directors often select plays from the classic canon that have relevance for today’s issues. “I think that you have to look at 30 years after an event to be able to tell the story about the present,” says Mann. Not only does “Mrs. Packard” deal with women’s emancipation but it also looks at the factions and fanaticism in religious groups.” Noting progress that has been made, Mann is also concerned with “the danger of sliding back.”

When Mann was an energized young high school graduate in 1974 planning her foray into theater at Harvard University, her friends were also weighing the possibilities. Some were off to Yale Drama School, some going immediately into freelance directing, others were enrolling at the Film Institute to prepare as film directors. “I was told that I should not think of directing as a career because women didn’t direct plays. I should perhaps think about children’s theater.”

She also remembers that when her family moved to Chicago in 1966, her mother couldn’t get a credit card under her own name at Marshall Fields department store nor could she have a bank account.

We have only to look at the recent Supreme Court decision to see concerns for women’s rights as well as the dangers of religious fundamentalism encroaching on matters of government. Mann cites Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s response to this decision based on religiously ideological grounds as disturbing and that it really fights against Ginsberg’s life’s work. “Many of us feel that way,” adds Mann.

“This play seems so present tense. All over the world we’re seeing religious fundamentalism rise again — whether it’s fundamentalist/extremist Islamists or Christians or Jews. Whenever you have extremists, it’s a disaster for women.” She notes that suppression of women means suppressing half of the entire society. “It’s bad for women; it’s bad for children; and it’s bad for men. And that is what this play is really about. The tragedy of this system crushed all of them.”

She had begun working on “Mrs. Packard” around the time that the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal hit the news media. Mann notes that when one group is in absolute power over other human beings and the rules are lax, “things happen — whether in a prison or an insane asylum or an old age home. Sadly, human beings are capable of doing awful things to each other.” This too is part of the concerns of her play, to see how the tortured as well as the torturer break down.

One wonders how a woman could live with a man for so long and not realize that something was going very wrong, so wrong that he’s going to stash you away as insane. However, Mann reminds me of the times and the mores of the mid-19th century — a “woman’s place.” She says that young Elizabeth was “quite pampered. Her father had her educated with her brothers and recognized an adorable, smart mind in her. She was an amazing little girl. He encouraged her intellectually. She knew that was rare, but she didn’t know how rare. She just thought she’d be the wife of a minister like her mother, who seemed perfectly happy. And that’s all she wanted to do. She ran the household, saw to the education of the children — a very typical housewife.”

Young Emily Mann also was a special child, appreciated and inspired by her father. “I had an extraordinary father who believed in the equality and education of women, and I had every right to think my own thoughts and be whatever I wanted to be,” says Mann. That surely gave her an additional connection with Mrs. Packard. And Mann’s mother has been connected with the writing of this play. “I’ve read her each draft, reading all of the parts. She adores this play. She was stunned by it.”

But certainly the strongest evidence of how far women have come is Emily Mann herself. Playwright, director, administrator, producer, wife, and mother — those are just some of her titles and responsibilities. I ask her how she manages, all the while feeling a little bit guilty that I was taking 30 minutes of her time during her rehearsal period for this interview. She tells me that it’s easier because she loves her work and has strong support from the McCarter staff. “I don’t feel burdened by working hard. It’s really about time management.” And time set aside for her family is sacrosanct. She and her lawyer husband are enjoying having their son back in Princeton for a few months. He graduated from college and has just returned from a trip to South America. In his own apartment, he is busy studying for his law school entrance exams. “We get to see him often,” she says.

With the support of her staff, she says, “we carve out the time to add in my writing to the administration and everything else. It’s a very well run theater and the staff is dedicated to helping me keep growing as an artist.” Not surprisingly, of all of her activities, it’s hardest to make time for her writing. At first, she tried writing during her vacations but realized that she really did need that “down time.” So she now blocks out time in her monthly schedule that is set aside for her writing projects. She also has working holidays during which she writes half of the time. She admits, “It’s a tricky set of balances, so I can get the rest I need and use the down time at the theater to do the big writing. I can’t say that I’ve nailed it yet.”

Two of the plays that she has written have been produced on Broadway. “Having Our Say” (which originated at McCarter in 1995), the true story of two African American sisters, who were pioneers in civil rights. “Execution of Justice” (which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1986) deals with the trial and light sentencing of a man who killed a homosexual public official. Mann, of course, directed both. Her directing credits at McCarter are varied, with her at the helm of new plays, adaptations of classic plays, and revivals from the library of great American dramas. In the past 10 years, four of her McCarter productions have moved to Broadway, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz.

Since taking the helm of the McCarter Theater as artistic director in 1990, she has overseen over 85 productions, 30 of which she also directed. Her plans for the theater include expanding the theater’s work with new plays. “Things seem to be on a roll for McCarter to be a place where writers can come to work,” she says. Not only does the theater have strong connections with young writers in their 20s and 30s, but also works with master writers like Edward Albee, Athol Fugard, and John Guare. “It’s taken years to make that happen,” she says. “We’re reaping the rewards of those good initiatives. I’m very excited about that.” Next season Mann will direct the premiere of a new play by Albee, and this time next year, we’ll see “A Seagull in the Hamptons,” her “free” adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

“Mrs. Packard,” previews begin Friday, May 4, opening night Friday, May 11, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. World premiere drama by Emily Mann is based on historical events in Illinois circa 1861. For ages 12 and up. Through Sunday, June 10. $35 to $48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.

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