The end of the 18th century is a period typically referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period in which superstition and religious dogma gave way to science and logic. It was also the modern invention of the great experiment we call democracy: the U.S. constitution was ratified in 1787, just three years before the events depicted in The Insanity of Mary Girard presented by Saint Augustine's University Department of Theatre. But what if the birth of a nation had a dirty secret? Enter the Girard family.
Stephen Girard, perhaps America’s first bank mogul, single handedly financed the United States during the War of 1812, saving a fledgling nation from financial collapse. But this great American philanthropist had a few skeletons, and the story of his wife, Mary Girard, has become infamous. Entered into a Philadelphia area mental hospital in 1790 under mysterious circumstances, she would remain there for 25 years, long after the mental hospital declared her fit to leave. Adding fuel to the mystery, Mary Girard gave birth shortly after being admitted, but the child died after only five months. After Mary’s death, she was buried on hospital grounds in an unmarked grave. It’s a mystery to be sure, and it leaves just enough unanswered questions to allow for great historical fiction.
The bizarre late-18th century mental hospital setting, complete with medieval looking torture devices, is the thing psychological gothic dreams are made of. Consequently, Saint Augustine’s production of The Insanity of Mary Girard by Lanie Robertson was a successfully surreal and gothic imagining of the life and death of Mary Girard.
The story is told from Mary’s perspective, so we’re never clear how accurate her interpretations of events are, but I was entranced all the same. Mary is guided and tormented by the “furies,” a hallucinatory Greek Chorus who dredge up painful memories for Mary to relive. As she attempts to piece together the whys and hows of her being admitted, we encounter Stephen Girard doing just about everything in his power to keep her locked up.
Mariah Jacques was pitch perfect as Mary Girard as we followed her decent into madness. We felt for her, and feared for her from the play's first moment to the last. Wallace Morgan was powerful as Stephen Girard, and the college-age ensemble did a terrific job at bringing the unsettling chorus to life. George Jack, director and designer, created an ominous and foreboding atmosphere, furthered by a haunting and nearly ever-present sound design. The set was dominated by a premonitory wooden device reminiscent of an electric chair, and the stage was filled with large, stacked cement blocks that gave the impression of being deep underground. This, combined with the eerie soundscape, gave me the sense of being buried alive.
Like many great mysteries, we may never know what happened in the Girard home. Those secrets have long been buried. The Insanity of Mary Girard may have allowed some light in, but like all good art, it presented more questions than it did answers.