By Sophie Yalkezian
ALBANY — Since premiering the heartwrenching, modern drama “Custom Cuts” in October, the Harbinger Theatre company is ready to tell another story of familial abuses and their impacts — this time from a century past.
“Mrs. Packard” is the real-life story of Elizabeth Packard, an 1861 Illinois housewife whose husband committed her to an insane asylum after she disagreed with his religious views. Written by playwright Emily Mann, this production is Harbinger’s last of 2023 and runs from December 7th through 16th at the Albany Barn.
“You need to be prepared for vocal reactions to a lot of what you’re saying” lead actress Kathleen Carey recalls director Chris Foster telling the cast during rehearsals. “It’s going to be very powerful, there will definitely be vocal audience reaction to one scene in particular,” she said.
Carey is portraying the titular Mrs. Packard as the audience moves with her through scenes in the doctor’s office, the insane asylum, and in the courtroom during her trial against her husband. Having worked with Harbinger leaders Patrick White and Chris Foster for nearly 30 years, she’s excited to team up again and embody this heroic character.
“Her story is just incredible. I don’t know how I’ve never heard of her before.” Carey, an educator and longtime children’s bookseller, said. “It’s a miracle she survived the asylum and that she spent the rest of her life fighting for women’s rights and mental health,” said Carey.
Elizabeth Packard was born the daughter of a Calvinist minister and studied classics, literature, and mathematics as a young woman. She eventually married Theophilius Packard Jr., another Calvinist minister who moved her and their six children to rural Illinois in 1857.
As time went on and her independence grew, Elizabeth expressed beliefs of different religions such as universalism, spiritualism, and others. Her husband considered this immoral and committed Packard to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane. Unfortunately, it was completely legal at the time for a husband to commit his wife without any evidence of mental health issues required.
Throughout her years at the asylum, Packard documented everything she experienced and witnessed, eventually releasing the details in a series of books that launched her career as a writer.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Elizabeth Packard’s story and the harmful legislation that’s used to control women’s bodies today. Namely the removal of long-held protections over reproductive rights across the country.“Same shit, different century,” Carey summed up. Seeing a similar dynamic in a more extreme (but no less real) context will surely remind audiences how far we’ve come — and how much further we still have to go.
“It’s going to be an explosive night of theater,” said Carey. “Nothing is sugarcoated as far as what these women went through.”
Tickets are available at the door or online for “Mrs. Packard”, which runs from December 7th through 16th at the Albany Barn. Friday performances include a talkback with its cast and director.