Theater Review: “Typhoid Mary” — Surprisingly Apt for Our Times
This tautly-directed, well-cast production is filled with contemporary medical, political, and social resonances.
Typhoid Mary by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Matthew Penn. Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA, through June 16.
By Helen Epstein
I always look forward to a new play by Mark St. Germain, a writer who deftly blends entertainment with historical events and provocative intellectual concerns. Typhoid Mary is his ninth production at Barrington Stage Company (previous ones include The Best of Enemies, Dr. Ruth, All the Way, Freud’s Last Session) and, I think, it is one of his best. Based on the true story of Irish immigrant Mary Mallon (born in 1869 in County Tyrone, who emigrated to New York in the 1880s), the script centers around her forced quarantine in a New York City hospital as a suspected asymptomatic typhoid carrier.
Like many thousands of single young Irish women of her generation, Mary Mallon served as a domestic in America. She worked as a cook in Mamaroneck and Manhattan, New York where she infected more than 50 people with typhoid fever, three of whom died.
Mallon, as drawn by Mark St. Germain, is an unusually unsympathetic heroine: dour, ignorant, angry, and resistant to any attempt to educate her about religion or science. As portrayed by Tasha Lawrence, she has a persuasive Irish brogue, a soft spot for the occasional child, but little patience for adults — men, women, doctors, or priests. She has no faith in the value of good personal hygiene, and does not see the point of frequently washing her hands. Since Mary is healthy, she does not believe she has spread typhoid fever to others; she is outraged when she is dubbed “Typhoid Mary” in a 1908 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. She refuses to co-operate with her doctors or agree to invasive tests. “Who needs science when I know the truth?” Mary challenges the female doctor assigned to her care. “It doesn’t take a microscope to see stupidity!”
In actual life, it was only after she died of pneumonia in 1939, at 69, that an autopsy found live typhoid bacteria in Mary’s gallbladder, thus confirming her as a carrier.
Though set in 1910 and first produced in 2004 as Plague of Angels, Typhoid Mary’s script is as deft and pertinent as if it were written yesterday. This tautly-directed, well-cast production is filled with contemporary medical, political, and social resonances.
Some theatregoers will reference the AIDS and Ebola epidemics along with their unwitting or willfully obtuse carriers. Those who follow international news will think about Ireland’s long subjugation to the Catholic Church, which was just upended in the national vote to reverse abortion law. Everyone will reflect on the consequences of ignorance; media opportunism and the notion of “fake news;” the many battlefields (including politics) on which science contends with religious belief; rampant prejudice against immigrants, and bias against women.
The BSC production makes the most of St. Germain’s polished script, not only focusing on Mary’s story but highlighting the narrative’s supporting characters, their complex relationships and thorny conflicts. The connection between Mary and the young, idealistic Father Michel McKuen most interested me.
“Tell me, will your lawyer appeal?” He asks about her chances for getting out of quarantine.
“I doubt it,” she replies.
“Once the newspapers lose interest in me so will he.”
“Have you been reading the papers?” he asks.
“Of course; I don’t want to miss their cartoons of me: Witches in aprons, cracking skulls like eggs into cauldrons of blood. Those helped for a fair trial, don’t you think?”
The cast members – three female, two male – are all gifted actors, excellent in their roles. Miles G. Jackson is particularly persuasive as a young, intelligent, and sympathetic priest who is so disturbed by his experiences with Mary that he eventually leaves the church; Kevin O’Rourke and Keri Safran both effectively portray physicians who are trapped by the constraints of class, hospital politics, and the economic set-up of their time. Frances Evans, a fourth-grader, is fine as the eight-year-old who dies of typhoid. And Lawrence does a remarkable job of making the most of Mary Mallon’s constricted emotional range. The actor consistently generates an interest in what literary critics have dubbed an “unrelatable” heroine, a figure who seems to have no interest in whether people like her or not.
Cleverly designed by Brian Prather, the single set contains many era-appropriate props (metal hospital bed, cast iron cook stove, wooden rocking chair) and is fluidly lit by Scott Pinkney, who seamlessly delineates changes of scene. The sound design by Alexander Sovronsky and costumes by Elivia Bovenzi are also apt without calling attention to themselves, further drawing together a satisfyingly cohesive production.
Director Matthew Penn has directed this timely play at just the right pace and put together a flawless team of artists. A wonderful start to Barrington’s 24th season.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and nine other books of non-fiction. A Berkshire summer resident, she has been reviewing for the Arts Fuse since its inception. Her work can be found at www.plunkettlakepress.com.