Mind Games: ‘Mary Girard’

A wealthy businessman sends his wife to an asylum in ‘The Insanity  of Mary Girard’ at the Shadowbox

For his directorial debut, Matt Story wanted to put on a play with a social message. So when Amy Woodruff, artistic director of Theatre Louisiane, presented him with a piece that touched on mental illness — “The Insanity of Mary Girard: A Dream in One Act” — he knew he wanted to bring it to the stage.

“It’s based on a true story of a woman who gets put in an insane asylum by her husband, Stephen Girard,” Story said. “There’s definitely some social relevance in the way we treat and view those who are mentally ill and the stigmas that come with someone who is mentally ill. We often just push them aside.”

“The Insanity of Mary Girard,” a one-act drama written by Lanie Robertson, opens Friday for a three-weekend run at the Shadowbox Theater in Bywater. Set in 1790, it tells the haunting story of a woman, Mary, whose husband, a wealthy French businessman naturalized in Philadelphia before the turn of the 18th century, has her declared legally insane after she gets pregnant by her lover.

At the asylum, Mary is strapped into a “tranquility chair.” With no real treatment for mental illness at the time, such chairs were designed to ease inmates’ anxieties.

She can’t understand how or why she ended up there, and while she insists she isn’t crazy characters called furies dance around her, impersonating people from her past, such as her husband and mother. Reality seems to be slipping away, and she begins to question her own sanity — as does the audience.

“What’s really interesting is the dialogue,” said Story, a Baton Rouge native who has a bachelor of arts degree in theater performance from LSU. “Each one of these people takes on a segment of the same sentence. It’s five different voices, from five different directions, speaking this one thought. It’s audibly jarring and it makes you start wondering: Am I mad?”

He said the unique nature of the dialogue requires the audience’s full attention.

“It’s going to be an audio exercise — an exercise in listening for both the cast and the audience,” Story said. “You won’t be able to sit back and just vegetate.”

The cast is led by Woodruff as Mary and James Howard Wright Jr. as Stephen Girard. The other five members of the cast play dual roles with each playing one of the furies — Glenn Aucoin as Fury 1/Warder, Kristi Webb as Fury 2/Mrs. Lum, Tiffany Wolf as Fury 3/Polly Kenton, Michael Martin as Fury 4/Mr. Phillips and Rebecca Meyers as Fury 5/Mrs. Hatcher.

“We’ve got a nice blend of actors,” Story said. Everyone is from the New Orleans area. “We’ve got some people established on the theater scene and some who are pretty new to the scene.”

With this being Story’s directorial debut, he admits he took on a challenging project. But “The Insanity of Mary Girard” is exactly the type of production he was looking to do. For one thing, he said, it revolves around a woman in which little is known.

“You can look all over the Internet, and there are a lot of facts about Stephen Girard. But there’s very little about her. It’s great that this play exists because it allows her to have her voice heard,” Story said.

Besides mental illness, he said, the story also addresses the lack of power women had in the 1800s. Mary’s husband is considered her legal guardian, and he makes every decision about her, including confining her to the asylum.

“Even today, there are a lot of men who believe they have control over what a woman does with her body,” Story said. “Even though we’re 200 years beyond this moment and we’ve made great strides, we’re still in the dark in some ways.”

In addition to starring in the play, Woodruff designed the costumes. The production crew also includes Aucoin as sound designer; assistant director Monica Harris; stage manager Rebecca McLaughlin; scenic designer Adam Tourek; lighting designer Vic Woodward; and mask designer Aubrey Schwartz.