Fighting for Justice

McCarter Theatre tries ‘Mrs. Packard.’

By: Stuart Duncan
   Her name was Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, and not only was she a real-life character, she was larger than life. She had the singular misfortune to live in Illinois in the mid-19th century when the laws of the state permitted husbands to detain wives in insane asylums, without evidence, as long as the medical superintendent agreed.
   And so, in spite of a respectable marriage, including six children, Mrs. Packard was spirited away in the night and tossed into an asylum in Jacksonville, Ill., when she failed to agree with her Calvinist minister husband’s decidedly strict view of theology. The resultant historical meanderings are the basis for Emily Mann’s new drama, which she directed herself for its world premiere at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.
   It is a powerful work — slightly flawed, but certainly fixable. The problems are the usual when real-life episodes intrude on poetic license. Here the first act follows the historical data faithfully and sags a bit in the bargain; the second allows the characters more latitude and catches fire. The first act seems long; the second flashes by. And, running through the evening, and presented on a separate stage level, are characters and statements from observers — all commenting on Mrs. Packard’s sanity or lack of it.
   This gives the evening both a surreal feeling as well as grounding it in fact. The laws of Illinois had both qualities as well. While husbands could commit wives merely for acts of disagreement, the state laws forbid a husband from confining his wife at home. And, surprisingly, it was this last law that caused a judge to bring the issue of Mrs. Packard’s sanity to trial. Three years in the asylum were followed by home confinement, and when she was able to smuggle a note to a neighbor, a judge took up the matter. In the drama, the audience is asked to act as a sort of jury, but in reality, there was little doubt. The real-life jury deliberated only seven minutes before declaring her completely sane.
   At McCarter, the evening is in the hands of strong performers. Kathryn Meisle is magnificent in the title role, without wrapping herself in self-pity. The play is taken from Mrs. Packard’s diaries, smuggled out under trying conditions. John C. Vennema, Princeton University class of ’70, plays the husband as if possessed, without a moment’s thought of compassion. It is believable only through the eyes of his wife (the diaries, remember). At the same time, his long stage absence after the opening moments of Act 1 until into Act 2 allows the passion of the play to sag. Dennis Parlato plays Dr. McFarland, the asylum manager, first as tender and understanding and later with the fierceness that only a spurned lover might exhibit.
   Molly Regan and Georgine Hall, both making return visits to McCarter, play two inmates confined to Mrs. Packard’s ward and represent symbols more than real-life characters. And, playing multiple roles of men testifying at the trial is Robin Chadwick, recognizable for many roles at the theater, including several years as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
   Eugene Lee’s set design conveys the starkness of institutional interiors and Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes reflect the period as well. Perhaps it might help to close with the actual words of the Illinois law as passed by the legislature: "Married women and infants who in the judgement of the medical superintendent are evidently insane or distracted, may be entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband of the woman or guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases."
Mrs. Packard continues at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, through June 10. Performances: Mon.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3, 8 p.m., Sun. 2, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $28-$48; 258-2787.