by Emily Mann
Directed by Emily Ranii
Bridge Repertory Theater
a co-production with Playhouse Creatures Theatre Co, NYC
Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, MA
March 15 – April 9, 2017
With Olivia D’Ambrosio (Elizabeth Packard), Joseph W. Rodriguez (Dr. McFarland), Steven Barkhimer (Theophilus Packard), Kinsaed Damaine James (Arthur Packard), Mikaela Saccoccio (Libby Packard), Veronica Anastasio Wiseman (Mrs. Chapman), Shanae Burch (Mrs. Tenney), Annabel Capper (Mrs. Bonner), Elaine Vaan Hogue (Mrs. Stockton), Jordan Clark (Inmate of the Asylum), June Kfoury (Inmate of the Asylum), Caroline Keeler (Inmate of the Asylum), Matthew Zahnzinger (President of the Board of the Asylum), Ryan Winkles (Male Witnesses of the Courtroom), Eric Cheung (Judge), Jacob Athyal (Attorney for the Defense / Attendant of the Asylum), Sarah Newhouse (Female Witnesses of the Courtroom), Thomas Grenon (Attorney for the Prosecution / Trustee of the Asylum)
An independent and reflective woman, Elizabeth Packard (Olivia D’Ambrosio), mother of six and wife to Reverend Theophilus Packard (Steven Barkhimer), a narrow and rigid Protestant minister, openly expresses to her husband her hesitation to accept traditional religious views. A vain and ridiculous man, Theophilus commits his wife to an asylum. The doctor in charge of the asylum is the sleekly maintained Dr. McFarland (Joseph W. Rodriguez) and he, along with a staff of subaltern sadists, attempt to control Mrs. Packard, who does not go down easily. Interleaved with the portrayal of her time in the asylum is a courtroom drama that plays out on the balcony above and which represents the case in which Mrs. Packard’s incarceration is challenged.
This well-written and engaging play provides the template on which this commanding production takes place. The vehicle of that command is no other than Bridge Rep’s Artistic Director Olivia D’Ambrosio who takes the lead role her. In a word, her performance is stunning.
I have seen D’Ambrosio in a few other productions but never have seen her cut loose like this. She is, out of the bag, the embodiment of a bright and capable woman done wrong. She expresses fierce independence and presence of mind and does so while managing to convey the sense of someone ripped from her foundations and thrown to the mercy of a horribly oppressive institution. Accomplshing that combination of traits is no easy feat, but D’Ambrosio does it masterfully. She is at once pitiful and competely self-assured.
The character’s repeated appeal to her husband, who has treated her awfully, is, in D’Ambrosio’s hands, also heartbreaking and astoundingly realistic, particularly when one recognizes the nature of the time and the context. That Mrs. Packard could be so self-possessed as to offer to return to her husband’s household is quite remarkable, but D’Ambrosio’s acute and down-to-earth reading makes it all seem believable.
As the bastard husband, Steven Barkhimer, fresh off a great run as George in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? at the Lyric Stage, gives a despicably realistic reading, seeming not dastardly, but perfectly acceptable to himself and to the world. It’s chilling in its covertness.
Equally chilling is Joseph W. Rodriguez’ performance as the doctor who pulls every awful thing in the book. Sleek and fashionable, he exudes the power of appearance that gains so much sway in the world. He and the husband make a truly creepy pair and both actors do a successful job of making it seem so.
This play is both heartrending and uplifting in ways. As one watches Mrs. Packard adjust to every change in her circumstance and do the best she can to find meaning in each, we take heart and think what a wonderful lesson she teaches by her adaptive optimism. And we also see the obtuse characters who frequently run things, and witness the ravages of sexism and religious intransigence our hearts sink a bit.
The chairman of the board of trustees for the asylum who testifies in favor of the release of Mrs. Packard is played by the capable Matthew Zahnzinger. As the judge, Eric Cheung reigns adeptly in the high mezzanine throughout the courtroom drama. The space in the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center works very well for the two separate but related actions.
Overall: interesting, well-written play on a difficult subject with a heart-stopping lead performance by Olivia D’Ambrosio.