On Thursday night students lined up outside the Arts Building to hear the tale of “Mrs. Packard.” Unfortunately, the opening performance had been scheduled at the same time as the MFA Dance Concert. But for those who weren’t steered away by the misplaced “sold out” sign on the ticketing booth that managed to cause a world of confusion, the night was an intense emotional rollercoaster. The story of Mrs. Packard is not well-known, so those attending the show had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Whispers of the play being about an insane asylum filled the air as patrons awaited for doors to be opened.
“Mrs. Packard” tells the tale of Mrs. Elizabeth Packard (Chelsea DeLeon), a woman cast into an insane asylum in Illinois by her Calvinist minister husband. Once in the asylum, Elizabeth witnesses the horrors that lie within its corridors and struggles to prove her sanity to Dr. Andrew Mcfarland (Ephraim Eshete), the head of the hospital. The story thus becomes a battle to protect one’s belief in the truth. The play spoke heavily about the position of women in the 1800s and their lack of rights.
As the doors opened and the audience began to pile in, we were all greeted by a very minimalist set design. Jailbar doors hung in the air, a judge’s stand sat in the middle of the stage and several chairs for jurors sat on both sides of the stage. Performers from previous productions huddled in support of their fellow thespians. Even Miles Anderson, director of UCR’s theatre production “Measure for Measure” stopped by to show his support. Chatter amongst the audience ceased when the actors took to the stage.
Much like “Measure for Measure,” “Mrs. Packard” began with an intense song and dance routine to capture the audience’s attention. The night started with actors lining up in the vein of a church choir performing Christian hymns such as “Rock of Ages,” “Glory Hallelujah,” “Wounded for Me” and “Amazing Grace.” The repeating of each song started to confuse people as to whether they came to see a play or choir performance before the lights abruptly shut off. An apt intercom voice took to the speakers, warning audience members to turn off their electronics to avoid disturbing the “patients.”
The night was full of on-and-off performances. Witnessing actors switch characters by simply tossing on a wardrobe piece and having late audience members walk through the play almost ruined the experience. However, the consistency of the main actors DeLeon and Eshete kept the play alive. DeLeon did a wonderful job of playing an upbeat, quirky and passionate individual who during this time period was considered too smart for her own good. Eshete had a history of delivering powerful performances with distinguished male characters who have an eerie perverseness about them. When either of the two were on stage, I was immediately brought back into the story.
One of the cool things about the play is its genre. You can’t classify a play as horror, but the weird lullaby sound effects and creepy laughter played at the transitions of scenes gave the play a horror vibe. The play can’t physically change its location, so it is dependent upon the set design and side actors to create the atmosphere. With the help of both the prop managers and side characters, the set design went from being simple and minimalistic in the first half to looking as if it were the Southside of Chicago in the second. Actors Eli Reich, Dana Pierce and Mark Guillermo did a wonderful job of creating that hostile environment through their performances.
The play included several intriguing concepts, one of which that caught my attention was the fact that characters not actively performing didn’t leave the stage. Most plays have actors walk in and out of scene through the backstage. Although this was off-putting at first, I quickly grew to accept the fact that this is how it was. Eventually, after contemplating why such a stylistic choice would be made, it began to make sense, as if the characters themselves were the jury being walked through the case of Packard v. Packard. The play did a brilliant job of using lighting and stage direction to indicate flashbacks, and transitions of setting within the story. After a while I came to love the fact that it was as if the lighting would activate characters.
The story of Mrs. Elizabeth Packard is one that has rarely been told. But slight mishaps that were somewhat out of the cast and crew’s control weren’t enough to stop incredible performances from telling her story. Through great performances we truly understand both the horrors of insane asylums and the struggles of many women during the 1800s.