The fact that a story is true — even if it’s full of important issues and outrageous injustices — doesn’t necessarily make it dramatic, and Emily Mann’s “Mrs. Packard” is more a theological soap opera with a feminist ax to grind than an engaging play. All the ideas are familiar: the independent-minded woman condemned by a patriarchal society, the horrors of insane asylums, the cost to children when husbands have their wives committed.
Unlike earlier daring treatments of these subjects — “The Yellow Wall-paper,” “Marat/Sade,” “A Jury of Her Peers” — “Mrs. Packard” is an essentially conservative play, making a point already socially accepted and obvious, taking no ideological or theatrical risks.
In 1860, Elizabeth Packard’s husband had her abducted from their home in Illinois by police and imprisoned in an insane asylum for three years. Her madness was clear: She disagreed with the religious views held by her husband, an old-school Calvinist minister, and she had publicly humiliated him. The real-life woman eventually won release and wrote books exposing the atrocious treatment — medical and legal — of female inmates.
The characters Mann has created to embody this story never really emerge as anything more than speechifiers. The actors deliver their lines without even a glimpse of the human beings behind the positions, so we never really care much about anybody. Mrs. Packard (Kathryn Meisle) is undaunted by anything or anyone; never less than perfectly articulate, never uncertain of her feelings or position, never seeing past her self-righteous nose to an ignoble solution, she begins to look kind of crazy to contemporary eyes.
Even when she has to plead for her life and freedom before the hospital’s board of trustees, there’s not a glimmer of nervousness. And when she recoils, appalled by the filth and stench of Ward 8, she instantly rolls up her sleeves and gets to work cleaning it up.
Mr. Packard (John C. Vennema) is a gloomy, muddled, inept man — we never see anything below his surface: Does he love his wife? Does he worry about the six children he cannot afford to feed?
The slick supervising physician (Dennis Parlato) is initially smitten with Mrs. Packard, but, after a suggestive “laying on of hands,” he loses interest when time spent in his bin leaves her looking a mess. There is some interesting confusion — Does she enjoy his advances? Is she manipulating his interest? — but the moment of complexity vanishes.
Everybody else is perfectly predictable, providing an array of stupid or sanctimonious cruelty, or meek but ineffectual kindness. When a compassionate caretaker advises Mrs. Packard to agree to the doctor’s terms, sign the paper agreeing to obey her husband and thus escape the hellhole and go home and care for her children, she draws back, shocked, “You would have me lie?” The Nora-like reply is, “Women have been doing it since the beginning of time.” The audience loved it.
At the end of the play, Mrs. Packard addresses the jury (and, of course, us) to establish her sanity, making a Big Speech about patriotism and the American Way. This bundles together all the play’s themes under the topic of liberty, not only literal freedom from incarceration, but freedom of interpretation of Christian doctrine and women’s rights.
Using an elevated catwalk from which various members of the community testify for or against Mrs. Packard, the set and lighting are all predictably grim, while the melodic music makes the work sound like TV fare.