Sarah Heddins is starring in “The Insanity of Mary Girard,” a powerful historical drama continuing at Allens Lane Theater through Oct. 6. (Photo by Angel James)

by Rita Charleston

In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale from Lanie Robertson comes “The Insanity of Mary Girard,” continuing at Allens Lane Theater through Oct.6. The play centers around Mrs. Stephen Girard who became pregnant by her lover in 1790. Her husband, the prolific Philadelphia philanthropist (Girard College), quickly committed Mary to an insane asylum, where she spent the last 25 years of her life.

Sarah Heddins, who at 28 is the same age Mary was when her troubles began, plays the title role in this production directed by Mariangela Saavedra. The play, Heddins contends, is an indictment of men’s treatment of women and society’s treatment of the mentally ill.

“I hope after seeing the show, people will come away with questions such as how do we approach and talk about mental illness, and how do we deal with the people around us who are dealing with mental illness?

“And on top of that, we’re layering in how much weight a partner or any man should exert over a woman. In the past women could be thrown into an institution for any reason. Some of that is still happening today, so how can we change that and start a meaningful conversation?”

According to her husband, Mary Girard was mentally ill.

“We know for a fact she was made pregnant by her lover, but aside from that, all we know is that her husband paid to put her in an asylum and paid to keep her there.There is some question about what is the truth.”

But there’s never been any question that Heddins was determined to become an actress.

“My mom, Sheila, was an actor and went to college for acting. although she didn’t get her degree. And when I was 12, my dad Rickey took me to see ‘My Fair Lady,’ and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a lifetime career.”

Originally from Texas, Heddins graduated in 2013 from the University of Houston with a BFA in Acting.

“And in 2014, I moved to Philadelphia and have been here ever since,” she said. “I looked at other cities but wanted to go somewhere that was comparable to Houston, and one of my mentors suggested Philadelphia. I did some research and discovered how vibrant the theater scene was, so I came out and visited for a week and absolutely fell in love with the city,”

When she first arrived here, Heddins settled in East Falls, where she still lives today, and took a job as a bridal consultant selling wedding dresses. She now works as an office coordinator because she needs the health benefits and a decent salary, but she continues to perform acting roles every chance she gets. And this production, she said, is a great chance to show her talents.

“Doing ‘Mary Girard’ has been the best thing to sink my teeth into. It’s been incredibly fulfilling,” Heddins said, “and although this is a very heavy role, because of my training I knew how to approach it. The show could easily have been played as one note. You could easily walk into it and have Mary portrayed as lost and helpless and sad. But I wanted to show a three-dimensional character, someone you might know and would be able to relate to.”

After every performance, however, Heddins said she is “physically very tired, although emotionally I’m OK. The biggest challenge is keeping everything in perspective. The storyline is told at the recent time and in flashback, so it can be difficult juggling all those times and keeping everything together in my mind. But it all works, and I look forward to every performance.”

“The Insanity of Mary Girard” continues at Allens Lane Theatre, 601 W. Allens Lane in West Mt. Airy. For tickets, call 215-248-0546.