We hear a scream and a belch of demented laughter. Mary Girard (Eliza Hill) is in the tranquilizing box — an eighteenth-century sensory deprivation chamber, only less fun. She is strapped to a chair with a box over her head; she has already lost thirty ounces to bloodletting.
She is released. Dazed, she stumbles into a circle of Furies (Vincent Joseph Donato, Nancy Ellen Reinstein, Lauren Smith, Russell Norris and Madeline Hickman.) Her fellow-inmates (Monica Lerch, Gareth Balai and Camilla Skalski) surround her, writhing in twisted misery.
This story is taken from history, but what is it? The record is dim. We know this: Mary Lum Girard (1758-1815) met and married Steven Girard (1750-1831) in 1776, shortly after he came over to America from France. They lived together in apparent harmony for eight years and he became the richest man in the Republic. In 1785, he began to complain of her “violent outbursts”; five years later, he had her committed to the insanity ward of Pennsylvania Hospital for lunacy, a catch-all diagnosis in common use at the time. She spent the rest of her life there.
She was reported to be a great beauty, although no paintings of her exist. (Girard did commission a painting of one of his mistresses.) She was pregnant at the time she was committed, but it is unclear who the father was. Girard spent lavishly for his wife’s care, but never visited her at the hospital. In fact, he twice tried to divorce her, but since insanity was not a grounds for divorce at the time, he failed. He even pressed for passage of legislation which would allow the divorce, but without success. When she died, he had her buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.
All righty, then. Playwright Lanie Robertson (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill) has filled in the gaps in the most horrifying way imaginable. Suppose, he says, that Mary was not insane at all. Suppose her “violent outbursts” were nothing more than a woman speaking her mind — something unheard of at the time. Suppose, too, that hypocritical Steven, in the arms of his own mistress, had Mary committed because he knew her child to be fathered by another man. Suppose the story of Mary Girard is that the punishment for contradicting her husband is hell on earth?
The Wandering Theatre Company tucks into these suppositions with a vengeance, and the result is one of the most horrifying, unrelentingly depressing productions ever to hit Capital Fringe. I mean that in a good way, too. The absolute unblinking purity of the emotion this show conveys is in and of itself art. Had this been comedy, you would be helpless with laughter. Because it is what it is, you will be weak with fear.
The Furies promise to bring before Mary anyone who she chooses to see, thus artlessly bridging exposition. They conjure the Warder (Donato) who brought her to her cell, smirking as he points to the high windows where Sunday-morning strollers gather to look at the lunatics; Mary’s mother (Reinstein), enraged that her daughter married above her station and humiliated that she couldn’t make it work; and Steven’s current mistress, Polly Kenton (Smith), who lectures her.
She is allowed to witness the efforts of the hospital director, Mr. Philips (Norris) to convince Steven (Timothy Bell) that she is not insane, but merely subject to the mood swings pregnancy occasions; he responds by paying Philips never to bother him again. She has a chilling confrontation with her husband. She sees her daughter handed off to a wet nurse (Hickman).
The Insanity of Mary Girard
by Lanie Robertson
Directed and choreographed by Natalie V. Zito
Mask creator/designer: Lia Boner
Details and tickets
All of these scenes are compelling, but the scene with Polly Kenton is provocative. Polly is an apostle of cynicism, who tells Mary that all she needed to do was feign affection to have a life of ease. Although this posture is universally detested today, when posed as a duty which the wife owes the husband, it resonates in a hundred different ways as we seek to please our supervisors, our customers, our clients, and — regardless of gender — our spouses. The Pennsylvania State Hospital for the Insane no longer exists, but we still have our Warders.
The Fringe lists The Insanity of Mary Girard in the physical theater-dance category, and director Natalie Villamonte Zito moves this large and athletic cast around with balletic grace. Black-clad and wearing raven’s masks, the Furies seem less like individual players and more like wave after wave of despair, beating ceaselessly against the shore of Mary’s battered soul.
Although Robertson occasionally takes liberties with the facts (Mary’s daughter was named “Mary,” not “Rose”) when it suits the story, Wandering Theatre remains impressively grounded in history. Particularly noteworthy: the deep scar under Bell’s left eye, which called to mind Steven Girard’s deformed, sightless one.
Permit me one final historical note. The play makes frequent reference to a “Dr. Rush”, the inventor of the tranquilizing chair. This means Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, whose own son was also committed to a home for the insane. Dr. Rush, who pioneered the treatment of insanity as a disease rather than diabolical possession, is considered one of the most progressive and compassionate physicians of his generation.