The Washington Post
Injustice Gone Insane
‘Mrs. Packard’ Betrayed by a Relentlessly Dreary Narrative
The year is 1861 and the Rev. Theophilus Packard has decided he’s had quite enough of his headstrong wife, Elizabeth, who not only has had the audacity to talk back to him but also has expressed her own notions about God. In public! So, on the reverend’s word and on that alone, she is committed to an insane asylum.
Husband of the Year, Theophilus ain’t. Oh, so you got that? Well, about 15 minutes into “Mrs. Packard,” the long and formulaic new play based on Elizabeth’s agonizing case, you’ll have gleaned this and practically everything else you need to know about the Packards, the inequities of a chauvinistic legal system and the decrepitude of 19thcentury mental health care.
“Mrs. Packard” comes to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater courtesy of McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., and the Fund for New American Plays, the program that brings a new work to the center for a short run each June. Although it features a highly accomplished central performance by Kathryn Meisle as the wildly mistreated Elizabeth, the play itself is a dreary, one-sided trek through stolid courtrooms and fetid wards.
Written and directed by Emily Mann, McCarter’s longtime artistic director, “Mrs. Packard” is loaded with information — and devoid of drama. The play, with an obvious debt to “The Crucible,” is about the martyrdom of those who dare to tell the truth when powerful, hidebound institutions demand they toe the line.
The institution that essentially betrays Elizabeth — mother to six children in a Calvinist home in Godfearing Illinois — is marriage. Theophilus (John C. Vennema) is the most myopic of men, a scriptural literalist who is undone by a domestic partner with a mind of her own. A scandal brews in his failing ministry — the parishioners don’t like him any more than we do — after Elizabeth offers up the not entirely original suggestion that the Trinity makes sense only if the Holy Ghost is female.
“Mrs. Packard” keeps the door slightly ajar to doubt: Does Theophilus have her confined because he believes her a heretic, or simply because he’s threatened by a woman with more spiritual grace and intellectual prowess than he? His collaborator is the law, which at the time granted husbands seemingly unchecked power to declare wives unfit and in need of institutionalization. (And you thought that guy you married, the one over there spilling Bud on the couch, was the Neanderthal.)
Elizabeth is such a transparently sympathetic figure that the challenge to a dramatist is formidable: how to tell her story without stacking the deck. Mann, unfortunately, finds no incisive way around the problem. “Mrs. Packard” plays like an application for beatification. When, for instance, the asylum’s paternalistic superintendent (Dennis Parlato) punishes the outspoken Elizabeth by banishing her to the worst ward in the loony hatch, she immediately rises to the challenge, devoting herself to the task of improving the sanitary conditions. (Just asking: Why, in theater land, is there always one asylum inmate cackling maniacally?)
The chronicle of Elizabeth’s frustrating time in the madhouse is frequently interrupted by segues to a bridge above the stage, where characters, framed in light, offer evidence of Elizabeth’s mental state. By the second vignette, we’ve gotten the point, and there are dozens more of these moments to come.
Although the stagecraft and the acting are commendable, the relentlessness of the narrative was too much for some in the Terrace, where for the first time in my career, I had to change my seat due to snoring. By the second act, a woman in my row had fallen into a deep and noisy slumber. No one around her, it seemed, had the heart to wake her. On this turgid occasion, such restraint was charitable.