by Hugh Hunter
“The Insanity of Mary Girard” by Lanie Robertson is Allens Lane Theater’s contribution to the Philly Fringe Festival. It is an elaboration (but not an implausible one) on the true story of Mary Girard, wife of philanthropist Stephen Girard (Girard College), committed to the lunatic ward of the Pennsylvania Hospital by her husband in 1792.
Mary was the lowborn daughter of a ship carpenter, 10 years younger than Stephen. Their childless marriage soured, and they both had affairs. When Mary became pregnant with another man’s child, Stephen used his patriarchal authority to declare her insane and involuntarily commit her to the hospital.
Sarah Heddins shines as the besieged Mary Girard. The extremity of Mary’s situation might encourage an actress to overemote. But Heddins retains full control of Mary’s shifting consciousness, at various times shocked or indignant, fearful, desirous or pleading. Mary’s final acceptance of her fate is strangely exalting.
When you first meet Mary, she is seated in Dr. Benjamin Rush’s “tranquilizing chair,” a sensory deprivation device in which she is strapped into the seat with a wooden box lowered over her head. When released, Mary must contend with the “furies,” fellow inmates who surge about her and a demented and intrusive Greek chorus that taunts as well as informs. (Playing the furies: William R. McHattie, Teresa Nutter, Sarah Palmatory, Browning Sterner and Sean Vermeire.)
At different times, key figures in Mary’s life enter the basement ward. It is unclear if these are real encounters or hallucinatory engagements encouraged by the tranquilizing chair, an ambiguity that adds to the play’s exotic atmosphere. Saavedra’s cast delivers one sterling performance after another.
Mary meets her mother Mrs. Lum (Jessica McDonald), a cold fish scornful of her own daughter. Polly Kenton (Neena Boyle), Stephen’s new mistress, is so charmingly corrupt she is funny. Mrs. Hatcher (Teresa Nutter) is the woman who adopts Mary’s baby. Stephen Girard (Jim Broyles) shows up to confront Mary with his hatred. He also meets hospital superintendent Mr. Phillips (William R. McHattie) and bribes him into cooperating.
This production is the fourth time Mariangela Saavedra has directed this work, a testament to the old saying “Practice makes perfect.” Saavedra converts the Allens Lane stage into a theater in the round. It was the practice at old Pennsylvania Hospital to allow spectators to use upper windows to peer into the basement where the insane were housed; in a creepy way you feel that the audience now plays a similar voyeuristic role.
“Insanity” is a marvelous period piece but also something more. Stephen’s triumphant patriarchy may be a thing of the past, but the problems of wealth and institutional corruption are here to stay. Will future generations see the current practice of “chemical restraint” in treating mental illness as our version of Dr. Rush’s “tranquilizing chair?”
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Ln. “The Insanity of Mary Girard” will run through Oct 6. You can purchase tickets online at AllensLane.org or by calling 215-248-0546.