Fiana Toibin, Kathryn Meisle, and
Ray Wiederhold in Mrs. Packard
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Fiana Toibin, Kathryn Meisle, and
Ray Wiederhold in Mrs. Packard
(© T. Charles Erickson)
When director Emily Mann puts on her no-nonsense playwright's hat, she often marches off to rectify cruelty and social injustice. This is again the case with the powerful if inconsistent Mrs. Packard, now making its world premiere at Mann's artistic home, Princeton's McCarter Theater. The play, also helmed by Mann, deals seriously with man's inhumanity to women -- more specifically, one husband's inhumanity to his wife.

In 1861, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (the excellent and uncompromising Kathryn Meisle) had the misfortune of differing with her Calvinist preacher spouse's beliefs in church doctrine. At the time, Illinois law held that a husband could commit his wife to an asylum on the grounds of insanity without her consent or having to produce any evidence at a public hearing. So the Reverend Theophilus Packard (John C. Vennema) took the state up on its offer after his wife refused to recant her liberal views of God's intentions. The furious Packard claimed Elizabeth was not just mentally impaired but unable to care for the couple's six children.

The lady was hauled off to a Jacksonville institution, where she remained for three years under the dubious care of Dr. Andrew McFarland (Dennis Parlato), a physician from a retrograde mental-care school. Refusing to admit to being insane for her views, Mrs. Packard suffered unceasing assaults on the sanity she was attempting to retain, the worst instance being condemnation to the foul-smelling Eighth Ward, where the most pronounced lunatics were housed. (While set designer Eugene Lee and lighting designer Jeff Croiter superbly create the asylum gloom, there is no aroma designer to approximate that aspect of Mrs. Packard's shaming.)

In telling Mrs. Packard's horrific story, Mann has done comprehensive research, most notably consulting the wronged wife's books, including Modern Persecution or Insane Asylums Unveiled, in which Mrs. Packard detailed her daily life behind locked doors. That life included regular beatings by hardened attendants and visits to a room where supposedly recalcitrant inmates were dunked head first into a bathtub of cold water until they were totally subdued. Another indignity Mrs. Packard endured was being denied paper and pencil to chronicle her experiences.

Mann occasionally interrupts her presentation of asylum life with courtroom testimony from the Packard v. Packard trial, which was held after Mrs. Packard's release from the asylum when her husband restricted her to a bedroom -- conduct that was considered illegal. At the trial, pro and con statements on Mrs. Packard's mental state are delivered on an elevated runway by associates and experts. Initially, testimony taken directly from the court records is adverse, but the attitude shifts with more than one witness declaring failed clergyman Packard to be the truly nutty one. The final piece of authoritative evidence comes from physician-theologian, Dr. Duncanson (Jeff Brooks) who says, "I pronounce her a sane woman...and wish we had a nation of such women."

Because Mann crafts her plays as if they're stage documentaries, she is often occupied in getting as close as she can to the unvarnished facts. Unfortunately, she's less scrupulous about tight dramatic structure. Moreover, since she makes a habit of directing her own works, she also deprives herself of someone else's shaping eye and ear -- and many of her scenes continue past the moment when they've made their trenchant point.

Also, while it's clear from the outset that Mrs. Packard is not insane, Mann does include hints that her behavior was at times irrational (as anyone's might have been in the circumstances). Nonetheless, if she had included some elaboration on the incidents, she'd have a more layered text -- as opposed to the black-and-white picture she currently shows.

In addition to effective work by Meisle, Parlato and Vennema, Fiana Toibin is relentlessly frightening as the attending Mrs. Bonner and Julie Boyd is touching as the pathetic Mrs. Tenney. A special hand goes out to Karen Christie-Ward, Beth Dzuricky and Quinn Warren, who portray the radically disturbed inmates without ever overdoing lunacy -- an extremely rare achievement in works of this sort.