By Delia Cruz Kelly
Written by Emily Mann and directed by third-year MFA Directing candidate Melissa Livingston, “Mrs. Packard” tells the powerful true story of Elizabeth P.W. Packard’s relentless fight to be heard during a time when everything she stood for was being silenced.
On the morning of June 18, 1860, Theophilus Packard (Aaron Arroyo), a Calvinist reverend, had his wife Elizabeth removed against her will from their home in Illinois and committed to the state-run insane asylum for her “liberal” beliefs. Elizabeth Packard’s (Jennifer Holcombe) journey to hold on to her truth in the face of brutal injustice is captivating, heartbreaking and hauntingly evocative of many modern day women’s rights issues.
The show opens in the Jacksonville insane asylum on the first day of Mrs. Packard’s internment. Her husband, who legally did not need any real proof of her insanity to commit her, meets the asylum’s superintendent Dr. McFarland (Brandon Hitchcock) and details exactly why his wife is insane. During one of Mr. Packard’s Sunday services, Mrs. Packard requested, in front of the whole congregation, that she be able to practice faith with the Methodists. This liberal heresy and outright aversion to her husband’s Calvinist beliefs were more than enough to declare her insane and lock her up in search for a “cure.” From the beginning of her stay at Jacksonville, Elizabeth’s relationship with Dr. McFarland proves to be twisted. His apparent liking for her strong will and intellect becomes a disturbed abuse of trust during his “first treatment” of her when he inappropriately touches her in the name of healing. Dr. McFarland’s misuse of power hangs over Mrs. Packard’s head and is only the first of many trials.
Her time in the seventh ward is marked by the screams of other patients’ disciplining, largely at the hands of the severely cruel nurse Mrs. Bonner (Kelsey Deroian). The daily terrors nearly break her spirit, causing her to question her own sanity. She finds an answer when Dr. McFarland presents her with an affidavit from her husband that, if signed, would allow her to return home so long as she agreed to everything her husband believed and kept her deviant thoughts to herself so as not to infect their six children and “endanger their souls.” She argued that her complete refusal to sign should be proof enough of her sanity as no women in her right mind would agree to such terms. That night, she stays up and feverently writes an extensive reproof to Dr. McFarland that questions the handling of patients in Jacksonville. This expression however only serves to get her sent to the eighth ward upstairs, meant for violently ill inmates.
The second act sees Mrs. Packard in the repulsive eighth ward, stripped of all her belongings and confined in a truly awful room that is unkept and uncleaned. Some light shines through in the eighth ward in Mrs. Packard’s companionship with Mrs. Tenney (Grace Theobald). A stark contrast to Mrs. Bonner, she is a kind and gentle nurse, grateful for Mrs. Packard’s help in caring for the other patients. The goodness, however, is temporary when in one of the most gruesome scenes in the show, Mrs. Packard is straight jacketed, nearly drowned and left broken and sobbing on her bed by Mrs. Bonner as punishment for trying to speak out and write.
For her entire time in the asylum, she is declined mail privileges, so when Mr. Packard visits, he comes with news that he has lost his congregation and cannot afford to take care of their six children. She offers to come home if only Mr. Packard can repent, but alas he is a man so terrified of deviation that he cannot change his mind. It seems as if Mrs. Packard’s convictions have damned her to eternity in this asylum, that is until the “Lunatic’s Ball.”
The event is attended by the board of trustees, and in one of the members, she finds her last hope. She manages to get 10 minutes to prove her sanity to him in Dr. McFarland’s office and she uses every minute to finally let herself be heard. She earns a court trial for her freedom and her final statement to the jury is the most commanding scene of the play, echoing the major themes of the show and the lasting impact of her story as an early American woman refusing to be silenced in a time when the world didn’t want to listen.
In an early news release, Melissa Livingston said, “There is so much in this story that resonates with today’s current sociopolitical climate, including an examination of the personal risk and potential fallout incurred by victims of injustice when they decide to speak truth to power.”
“Mrs. Packard” is playing at the Claire Trevor Theatre from Feb. 3 to Feb. 11.