KPBS AIRDATE: February 28, 1996
Sometimes a revelation can shake the very foundation of your beliefs. Everything you’ve built your life on can crumble, in the face of one errant patient as in “Forgiving Typhoid Mary,” or one visitation from a dead mother, as in “Raised in Captivity.”
Typhoid Mary was a provocateur. An enigmatic figure, whose nickname lives in infamy, Mary Mallon was, in the early part of this century, a healthy typhoid carrier who was proven to have infected at least 53 people. But she rejected any treatment, refused to practice simple hygiene, and rebuffed all attempts to get her to stop practicing her only skill: cooking, the most pernicious way of spreading the deadly infectious disease. Ultimately, she was incarcerated by medical authorities, because she was a threat to society who could not be rehabilitated.
She’s a mesmerizing character. Her story, as written by New Jersey playwright Mark St. Germain, mirrors the AIDS crisis, denounces hypocrisy, confronts misogyny and challenges Christianity.
In the play, Mary’s rejection of medical and religious ethics forces a doctor from her job and a cleric from the priesthood.
In a very potent production, Lamb’s Players Theatre underscores the controversies, plays up the humor, raises disturbing questions. Deborah Gilmour Smyth radiates a dark light as the mystifying Mary. She’s a professed innocent, a woman in deep denial, a reader, a menace, a cynic. It’s a finely nuanced performance, matched by the understated disquietude of Robert Smyth as the priest, David Heath as the political but perturbed hospital administrator and Tania Henetz as young Sarah, the only person Mary ever loved. In this beautifully simple production, beautifully directed by Robert Smyth, only Kerry Meads seems uncomfortable in her role, not tough enough or vulnerable enough as the bacteriologist who wants to be more than she is, and despises everything Mary represents.
Mike Buckley has designed a bone-chilling set, draped, enveloped in tattered, shroudlike shreds of fabric. Deborah Smyth’s evocative score is her best ever, filled with noises and sounds, eerie and suspenseful.
The revelations aren’t as earth-shattering in “Raised in Captivity”; they’re all confined to another one of Nicky Silver’s unfailingly dysfunctional families. But they’re about bigger themes, too: ineffective shrinks and ineffectual parents; loneliness and the disheartening pursuit of love.
Karin Williams has cast impeccably and directed flawlessly. The Fritz works great in the round, and this ensemble achieves the smooth perfection of liquid Silver: edgy, funny, sensual, ironic, giving a light touch to the profoundly heavy in life.
Bryan Bevell, who ably directed Silver’s “Fat Men in Skirts” at the Fritz, seems to be having a ball, a sly smile almost always lurking behind his lost and lonely Sebastian. KB Merrill gives the performance of her lifetime as his twin, Bernadette, a volatile schizo who’s a postmodern monstrosity. Dan Gruber is her tooth-hating dentist-turned-artist husband, Dana Hooley is under excellent control as the nutcase psychologist and the newly dead mother. Aarón Pérez is sexy and scary as a convict and a cruiser.
It’s vintage Silver, well-crafted if a bit over-wrought. A somewhat tarnished reflection of a corrosive world. But this piece has a surprisingly shiny finish.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.