Typhoid Mary, by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Matthew Penn. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Miles G. Jackson, Tasha Lawrence; photo: Carolyn Brown
". . .morality is like chewing a good steak coated with chocolate."
Frances Evans; photo: Carolyn Brown
Born on September 23, 1869 Mary Mallon infected, potentially, hundreds of people with Typhoid Fever, carrying the germ herself but never suffering from the disease. She was a cook, popular with many wealthy families in New York City, famous for her peach ice cream dessert - the probable principle dish that communicated the illness - who ultimately spent twenty-six years in a veritable prison hospital on an island in New York, north of Manhattan. One of her most famous ice cream deaths took a child, Sarah in this play, who brought the freelance sanitary engineer turned detective George Soper into the case. The case would make his name and reputation.
After her conviction for instances of Typhus from 1904 through 1907 she fought for her release from North Brother Island, never believing that she had caused illness and deaths, a lawsuit presumably financed by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who used her case in his headlines from 1909 through at least 1912. Ever the sensationalist, Hearst does not feature in Mark St. Germain's play at all and is, in fact, never mentioned.
The play was first seen in 1991 when Estelle Parsons took the role of Mary and Harriet Harris played the female doctor charged with treating her - read experimenting on her with new drugs - at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. It was then called "Forgiving Typhoid Mary" and though it was eventually listed among the best new plays it had a rocky start. St. Germain has tweaked it somewhat for this current edition and I think it may fare better now, twenty-seven years later, due to the times we live in where everything we know is based on half-truths, lies and concepts that don't compute.
Sarah, who exists for Mary in her memory scenes, is played by fourth-grader Frances Evans. Evans is moving in her later scenes when the illness overtakes her, but is cracklingly superior in her early scenes lending a wonder of reality to the relationship of a servant and an upper-class child. This helps the audience understand the complexity of the woman and to not merely witness the play but complete its own relationship with Mary Mallon, who is aloof, stubborn and willful.
Mallon is visited, often, by a Catholic priest, Father Michael McKuen, played softly and sweetly by Miles G. Jackson. It is his ear that hears the lyricism in the plain, common woman who cannot comprehend how dangerous she has become. Jackson plays tolerance and understanding beautifully and as he transforms into a more humane human through this friendship Jackson shows us, practically step-by-step, how one person can be altered through the closeness of the intellect.
The two doctors at this isolation branch of Riverside Hospital are played by Kevin O'Rourke and Keri Safran. Safran has the harder job. Playing one of the first female staff physicians in New York she is literally bound up with tensions rarely expressed but necessarily felt. Her unwavering sense of duty is fulfilled by Safran's actions and expressions. This is a role that could easily dominate the play, but she is restrained and keeps her character under control.
O'Rourke is an actor who can play the most unreasonable lines in a way that leaves the impression of a compassionate man working under difficult circumstances. His Dr. Mills is just such a man and the actor breathes real life into the character. As always he is a perfect addition to a company playing a virtual ensemble piece where the star is the play and the play makes stars out of everyone in the company.
Kevin O'Rourke, Keri Safran; photo: Carolyn Brown
Tasha Lawrence as Mary Mallon; photo: Carolyn Brown
Brian Prather's set for this play creates an atmosphere, castle turret in its fashion, that is almost creepy in its realization. Mary's room in the prison hospital is realistic but with a semi-circle walkway surrounding it, the room almost becomes an operating circus at times which can be observed by others unseen by the occupant. It is rather like a studio in the early days of live television where focus can be moved by a camera-shift of position while things still exist in the principal stage area. It works brilliantly here as people move in and around and disappear when needed. It holds Mary Mallon captive and she is always on display.
Mary Mallon is played with every sharp angle and nuanced curve of personality by Tasha Lawrence who holds center stage no matter what else is happening. This is Mary's play and Lawrence's strength is character-driven movement and posture and demeanor. She has a strong, demanding voice, even in her sweetest moments with the child. She presents an honest portrayal of a woman about whom little is truly certain. We feel by the end of the short play (an hour and a half with the intermission) that we have known this woman whose history is so peculiar, so foreign. Lawrence shows us everything by giving us the interior, the center of Mary Mallon while keeping the exterior, the visual, unchanging and inexpressive for the most part. I really like this portrayal.
For much of what works thanks goes to the director Matthew Penn who has taken the play to a higher plane than the script calls for. A play with three narrative voices can become dull as the "tell, don't show" aspect of such a drama can diminish audience interest. In this case the retelling by the two doctors and the priest are almost as compelling as the scenes played out in their own real time. I am not fond of this type of writing, but Penn, with Prather's design and the excellent ensemble of players, has made it work very well and there wasn't a dull moment on the stage.
Elivia Bovenzi's simple costumes are just right for the characters and Scott Pinkney's lighting is both atmospheric and specific. The incidental score, music-box-like, by Alexander Sovronsky is both unique and genuinely of the period of the play and is most effective.
Barrington Stage's 24th season is off to an excellent start with this play. It's tragedy is tied to the time and place in which it takes place and its triumph is in the work itself as performed by this company of players. We couldn't have asked for more.
Typhoid Mary plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company's Lee and Sydelle Blatt Center for the Performing Arts, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA through June 16. For information and tickets go to barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413-236-8888.