‘Mrs. Packard’ commemorates, appreciates women’s struggles


Amanda Long perfroms as Mrs. Bonner (left) in the dress rehearsal for Mrs. Packard at the Players Theatre in the Stevens Building Monday evening.

By Jessica Cabe

It is 1861.

In Illinois men are legally able to have their wives institutionalized with no proof of insanity. Women have no right to property or children in the case of a divorce. Insanity can mean anything from being too chatty to voicing unpopular opinions.

It sounds like science fiction, but it is the reality of the United States in the 19th Century.

The Players Theatre is an intimate round, with the audience circling 360 degrees of the floor-level stage. While this set-up has the benefit of involving the audience, junior BFA acting major Amy Powell, who plays Mrs. Chapman, said it posed one of the greatest challenges of the performance.

“The show was really most challenging in trying to figure out the best way to perform it in the round,” Powell said. “There are several physically violent scenes that had to be carefully choreographed in order to provide all the audience members with an equal view of the show.”

The physical violence does not take long to materialize. The play begins with the presentation of a court case, Packard v. Packard, in which various testimonials are given to help in proving Mrs. Elizabeth Packard, played by Kaitlin Henderson, sane or insane. Her husband, Reverend Theophilus Packard, played by Joel Moses, is a Presbyterian who disagrees with his wife’s radical, liberal views of religion. The two have six children together, and arguments over how to raise them–either will hellfire or compassion and forgiveness–lead to Mrs. Packard’s forced institutionalization.

The first sight of Mrs. Packard leaves the audience wondering if she isn’t actually insane. She screams and physically attacks her husband in the presence of Dr. McFarland, played by Brandon Greenhouse. Throughout the play, however, it is clear that Mrs. Packard and many of the other women are perfectly sane. The asylum serves as a holding cell for troublesome or inconvenient wives.

Powell said she was drawn to her character, Mrs. Chapman, because of her strong will.

“Mrs. Chapman is different from most of the characters because she stubbornly chooses to stay in the asylum in order to sort of have the last word after her husband sends her there,” she said. Rather than agree to submit to her husband’s every whim, Mrs. Chapman chooses a different kind of imprisonment.

The story is packed with emotional scenes. The most disturbing moments come from the beatings most patients must endure. These beatings come at the hand of one particularly violent nurse, Mrs. Bonner, played by Amanda Long. The audience witnesses many close-calls with death as Mrs. Bonner nearly drowns patients in the isolation room.

But with this violence comes gentleness, too. Mrs. Packard shows compassion to the other patients and pioneers for better treatment, always at her own expense. The conclusion is both rewarding and heartbreaking as the final fates of these characters is exposed.

The thing to keep in mind when viewing the play is it is based on real events. These are real people who actually existed. The history of female oppression is often viewed as something outside of history, not a part of it, said Powell.

“Women’s history is something, I feel, that is still seen as something in addition to history,” Powell said. “So, we have real history, plus this extra stuff of women’s history over here. I think it could be very beneficial to our culture to incorporate more women’s history into the standard history class in order to show that history has many different facets than what we usually think of.”

Women’s History Month is drawing to a close, but this play can be seen as one last hurrah for commemorating and appreciating the struggles and hardships our female predecessors faced in order to shape a freer America.

“Mrs. Packard was a woman in the 19th century, where women were considered property of their husbands and had little to no voice in the world, and yet she completely revolutionized the way the government treated those with psychological disorders,” Powell said. “If she could do all that then, our generation can do anything.”