“Mrs. Packard”: How a single woman’s story transcends time

 

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

UCR’s theatre, film and digital production department will be debuting its rendition of Emily Mann’s famous play “Mrs. Packard” this Thursday at 8 p.m. Directed by Bella Merlin, the play focuses on the title character, who is thrown into an insane asylum for three years for being at odds with her husband’s conservative, Calvinist beliefs. The play is based in actual history, as Elizabeth Packard is a real American woman who lived in the 19th century, when women had little to no legal or civil rights.

Merlin, a professor of acting and directing in the department, was very excited to direct “Mrs. Packard.” “I did a lot of research for this piece,” she said, “and I was a bit ashamed I didn’t really know much about her until I heard about this play, and her impact on women’s rights in her time.”

Merlin noted how the historical Mrs. Packard worked hard for equality long after she was released from her unethical imprisonment. “She certainly had an impact in her own state of Illinois, as well as about 34 other states throughout the 1870s and 1880s. At that time, a woman was described as a ‘legal non-entity,’ meaning a woman couldn’t hold legal rights over her children or property. After Mrs. Packard left the asylum, her influence reached as far as the presidency in her campaign to help overhaul that system.”

Chelsea De Leon, a fourth-year creative writing major and theatre minor, will be performing as the title heroine. “Mrs. Packard didn’t agree with her husband’s religious ideas, and he thought the devil was in her for being outspoken.”

De Leon knew extensively about her character and her role in both the play and history, noting, “She’s very passionate and strong-willed.” The play is known for its historical accuracy, given that Mrs. Packard was able to record what she witnessed in her three years in the insane asylum. “It’s fun and interesting to do a play based off of true facts,” De Leon stated.

Alongside its historical basis and accuracy, the play is also known for its ability to depict other characters as empathetic, even for those who stand in the way of Mrs. Packard’s freedom. Ephraim Eshete, a third-year sociology major and theater minor, expressed the tension that existed between his character, Dr. Andrew McFarland, and the title character. “Dr. McFarland was the head of the insane asylum Mrs. Packard stays in, and he was considered one of the best doctors on the mentally ill of his era. But he’s not an evil guy — he’s caught in the times he’s living in.”

In Mrs. Packard’s writings, she noted that she and Dr. McFarland were in love. Eshete personally looked into her journals and knew about the troubled and estranged relationship between the two, expressing, “It was obvious they were in love. Mrs. Packard wrote a love letter to him saying, ‘you are the husband I should’ve had, and that I will have.’” Dr. McFarland only has about three scenes in the play, but they’re all with Mrs. Packard. Despite the terrible things that happen to Mrs. Packard, Eshete believes in the inherent goodness of his character. “He’s not an evil person — far from it,” he stated. You know how you can kinda love someone, but also kinda hate them at the same time, like a sibling? That’s essentially how Dr. McFarland feels. There are times when they’re in love, and then times when they just wanna rip each other’s head off.”

Alix Conde, a fourth-year theatre major, will be performing as Mrs. Bonner, a matron in the asylum. “She serves as one of the antagonists in the script,” Conde explained. “She’s the most obvious antagonist because she’s very violent. It’s her job to beat the inmates, sometimes into submission.”

However, just like Dr. McFarland, one can also feel sympathy for an antagonist. Conde even states that Mrs. Bonner, one of the play’s more violent characters, is a victim. “In a way, everyone is a tool of somebody else,” she explained, noting the complications between blaming the more hateful characters and their sexist thoughts toward women and society as a whole for pervasive misogynistic attitudes back in the 19th century.

“I don’t even completely blame the men in this play,” Conde said. “They’re weak and foolish, but also tragic … in the end, nobody wins. Society does change for the better, but at a huge sacrifice.”

Despite the rather sad atmosphere of the play, it’s comforting for the audience, knowing that Mrs. Packard (both fictional and historical) does make it out of the insane asylum after three years, and that her story and influence reaches all the way to President Ulysses Grant and his wife. “With her experience and her activism, it’s without a doubt that Elizabeth Packard was the Joan of Arc of the nineteenth century,” Conde stated.

Merlin also sees more of the brighter side of the piece. “In a play about what is sanity and insanity, and attempting to figure out who you can trust; she certainly is a woman of conviction. Mrs. Packard’s greatest quality is her adherence to truth, and to the truth about what her story teaches society: That women deserve much better than simply being seen as objects to be owned.”

Merlin also went over her methods of rehearsing the play with the cast, utilizing a method of rehearsal known as “active analysis.” Developed by the famous Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavsky, its primary method involves having actors rehearse without the script. Merlin detailed how she implemented this into “Mrs. Packard”: “We would read a scene together, discuss it and then improvise it onstage, without the script.” With this method, the actors are allowed greater freedom to explore the hidden emotional depths and subtle nuances of their characters without being held down by their written lines. “As the director, I have no fixed idea about what this play is going to look like beforehand, so with this method, I can take the actors’ raw materials and apply it to the playwright’s script,” Merlin said.

“Mrs. Packard” will premiere April 30 at 8 p.m. in ARTS 113. Make sure you bring a box of tissues.

 

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