Adam Tourek's set for The Insanity of Mary Girard, currently on the boards at The Shadowbox Theatre, is simple and effective. It gives you the creeps. Surrounded by black space, a barefoot woman in a white 18th-century dress sits in a wooden armchair reminiscent of an electric chair. Leather straps restrain her arms and waist, and a boxlike contraption completely covers her head.
The play is fictionalized history. A Philadelphian named Stephen Girard amassed a fortune in the late 1700s. He married a 16-year-old lower-class girl named Mary, and several years later he had her committed to an insane asylum. Lanie Robertson's 1996 play imagines her life.
Mary Girard (Amy Woodruff) is locked in a "tranquilizer chair" in the asylum. She is visited by a chorus of Furies — masked figures wearing 18th-century garb. They taunt and deride her, speaking in rounds and sometimes completing each others' sentences.
Initially, vague patterns of light play on Mary and there is a recurring oceanic sound. The Furies' masks represent sea creatures, such as an octopus or jellyfish, and the underwater elements seem to imply her subconscious. The Furies release Mary from the tranquilizer chair and form a circle around her.
Who are they? "We're no one," "Inmates," "Ghosts" and "We're figments of your imagination," they say.
Mary demands respect. She also demands to be released, but as long as Stephen wants her there, she won't get out.
The basic arrangement between Mary and her masked tormenters persists through the play. At times, a Fury will drop his or her mask and play a character from Mary's life. And there also are a few scenes with other characters — most pointedly her husband Stephen (James Howard Wright Jr.).
In vain, Mary importunes the coarse warder (Glenn Aucoin) for her freedom. She is visited by her mother (Kristi Webb), who resents being snubbed by the Girards and blames her daughter for not being submissive enough to her husband. Mary also is visited by one of Stephen's mistresses, Polly (Tiffany Wolf), who says she knows how to play the love game and win.
Finally, we see a scene outside of the asylum. An asylum authority (Michael Martin) visits Girard, gives him the news that his wife is pregnant and says she should be released. Girard is unmoved and brusquely bribes the manager and promises large grants to the institution.
It's protofeminism in a dreary atmosphere, but the play is well-crafted. Director Matt Story assembled a strong cast and guided them effectively. It included impressive performances by Woodruff in the title role and Wolf as her sexual antagonist. Theatre Louisiane produced the drama. — DALT WONK