Harbinger Theatre’s “Mrs. Packard” Thought Provoking and Riveting
Elizabeth Packard, a well-educated woman living in the 1800’s became an advocate for women’s rights and people accused of insanity. Mrs. Packard knew well of what she rallied for as her husband, Theophilus a Calvinist Minister with stringent religious beliefs had her committed to an insane asylum. Her commitment was based on the fact that she disagreed with him about religion and child-rearing. As was the law at the time, a husband was able to commit his wife without the benefit of trial or consent simply due to her not agreeing with him. Mrs. Packard was confined for three years at Jacksonville Insane Asylum in Jacksonville Illinois and upon being released, having been diagnosed as incurable her husband kept her locked up in the nursery in their home until she finally was able to get away.
In the realm of truth being stranger than fiction, Emily Mann wrote a play about Packard’s time in the asylum and her persistence to get herself out. “Mrs. Packard” both the individual and the play of the same name is a tour de force. Harbinger Theatre under the direction of Chris Foster winds up their season with what is perhaps the most outstanding piece this young company has produced to date. Certainly, the most ambitious production mounted by the company, it includes a cast of sixteen playing no less than two dozen roles.
From start to finish, Harbinger under Foster’s direction has ticked off every box. The creative use of space, using both the main stage, primarily for the scenes in the asylum and smaller scenes being played on the floor of the theatre, Nick Nealson’s lighting design, Joshua Horowitz’s sound design and Beth Ruman’s spot on period costume design creates a life that contrasts well the worlds that Mrs. Packard traversed.
Foster takes his eminently talented cast and the audience on a ride that leaves you in the throws of disbelief, amazement that this could have occurred and an overwhelming sense of what a broken system the mentally ill were faced with in the 1800’s. He gets the most nuanced performances out of his actors; the “truly insane” patients are never portrayed over the top yet their performances contrast and highlight the sanity of those who, like Elizabeth Packard are as sane as you and I.
Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm is Dr. MacFarland the physician who runs the asylum is superb. We watch his character morph as Packard will not sign a paper stating she will not speak out against her husband and agree with him to get out. He runs the gambit from calm, polite and solicitous to seething and ultimately resigned frustration.
Monet Thompson-Young, Cindy Campbell, Michael Schaefer and J.J. Paul all beautifully create a world of sympathetic disbelief and terror. Richard Michael Roe is a somewhat terrifying Rev. Theophilus Packard, making the audience come to realize that it is perhaps he who is the insane one of the pair.
The show however belongs to Kathleen Carey as Elizabeth Packard. Carey has so perfectly incarnated this character, the very fiber of her being is a living breathing embodiment of Packard. Her performance is a sheer joy to watch.
Kudos to Mr. Foster for once again bringing and beautifully executing another Capital Region premiere.
Harbinger Theatre’s “Mrs. Packard” delivers so many messages about women’s rights, advocacy for the mentally ill, the impact of religious fervor the potential irrationality of the human condition and ultimately the need to advocate for yourself when no one will advocate for you. “Mrs. Packard” is a must-see this season.
“Mrs. Packard” runs through December 16 at Albany Barn. For tickets: Harbinger’s Eventbrite.