I recently saw Bridge Repertory Theatre’s Production of Mrs. Packard. My first casting at BU was in Adam Kassim’s production of Mrs. Packard. I played the title role. This semester was also the semester of the terrible storms and mass illness. I was a sick, cold, sophomore playing a 35-year-old woman who was wrongfully imprisoned in a mental institution and was water boarded onstage; I was an anxious wreak. Seeing BRT’s production brought back memories, and I was thoroughly surprised about how much I had retained.
What struck me this time was how relentless the play is. The language is infused with a rhetoric I would expect to find in a soap-opera from the 1800s and the moments of laughter come, almost exclusively, out of a genuine shock about the way women were treated. I think, to make this production successful, it is necessary to find moments of ambiguity. This play can easily become a preachy testimony of the past rather than an analysis of a larger, systematic issue that is still relevant today.
Finding ambiguity in the relationship between Doctor McFarland and Mrs. Packard is essential. If the audience is constantly deciphering McFarland’s intentions they are accountable to what is happening onstage. We want the audience to be going back and forth between thinking McFarland is a kind man doing his job and that he is a creep abusing his power and role of authority. If McFarland and Mrs. Packard both already know that he is using his position of power to seduce her then the audience is let off the hook. The gravity of the situation Mrs. Packard is in deepens when we catch ourselves sympathizing with the abuser.
I also think the actors must be extremely clear about when they should embrace the hyper-dramatic nature of the text and when to work against it. If the hyper-dramatic text is played into, I start to write off the play as an unimportant melodrama and it lessens the depth and excruciating circumstances of these women. There is value in Mrs. Packard’s strength and calm, and I think we need to see her disintegration as something that the system imposed on her rather than a quality she imposed on herself from the start. This play is a challenge because too far one way pushes the play into an unimportant melodrama and too far the other way pushes it into a conversational realm where it does not belong.
If anything, seeing this production gave me a sense of closure. I think for a long time I attributed my difficulties with the role to me being a young actor. In hindsight, I see that it is also an inherently difficult and complex role that caters to overacting and does not work if underacted.