When Mrs. Stephen Girard got pregnant by her lover in 1790, her husband took swift and immediate action. He had her committed to an insane asylum.
Direct from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction files comes Lanie Robertson’s “The Insanity of Mary Girard,” opening Thursday at the Complex in Hollywood. A dramatic re-creation of the real-life story of a Philadelphia woman who spent the last 25 years of her life in a mental institution, the play is set on the first night of Mary’s confinement, alone in the basement psycho ward, strapped into a “tranquilizing” chair.
“It really takes place inside Mary’s mind,” said director Ben DeBaldo, who feels that the play is an indictment of men’s treatment of women and society’s treatment of the mentally ill. “There are five Furies who visit her--one moment sweet and nice, the next moment vicious.”
Each Fury also plays another person in her life: the warder, her mother, her husband’s mistress, Mr. Phillips (who runs the institution) and Mrs. Hatcher, whom Mary’s baby was given to. (It died a month after birth.)
At the center of the story are the Girards. He was a rich businessman for whom a Philadelphia bank, street and hospital are named. She was 10 years his junior. Frustrated over her inability to have a child, each had affairs--and Mary got pregnant. Unable to deal with his rage and humiliation, Stephen had her committed. That injustice aside, DeBaldo concedes that his protagonist was no angel. “The real Mary did have problems,” he said. “She could be violent, throw things. She broke a lot of dishes.”
Robertson stresses that it wasn’t necessarily Stephen’s great wealth that denied Mary her civil rights; at that time, any husband could claim that his wife was insane or violent and have her committed against her will.
The New York-based writer, last represented locally with “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” and “Stringbean,” was living in Philadelphia in 1976 when he first stumbled on Mary’s story.
“I went to the hospital and looked through the ledgers, called ‘member’s minutes,’ ” he said. “Three months after Mary was put there, the hospital committee went to Stephen and asked to release her. He persuaded them to allow her to stay.”
Robertson, who also uncovered horrifying treatments performed on the inmates by psychiatrist Benjamin Rush, feels that the story is mainly about “the growth of individuation: from a woman who got her identity in marriage to a sense of what that’s done to her--and her own sense of worth.”
DeBaldo, a native of Pittsburg, Calif., has a slightly different take on Mary’s internal journey. “The Furies lead Mary toward an ultimate acceptance of her insanity,” he said. “They’re almost like the three ghosts in ‘A Christmas Carol’ guiding her along. This is really a play of ideas--with a lot to say about how we deal with our problems. And the fact is, it plays really well. It works onstage.”
This is DeBaldo’s second go-round with the material. Six years ago, when he’d just begun teaching acting and English at Fairfax High School, his student production of “Mary Girard” was an entry in the Los Angeles City College Festival. Last fall, looking for a new project, he pulled out this play and found “it still makes my heart pound,” he said. This time, though, the cast is the appropriate age range for the roles: late 20s to early 40s.
And this year, for the first time since he began teaching at Fairfax, DeBaldo is no longer directing the school’s drama productions. He is limiting his duties to acting and English classes and taking classes for a master’s degree at Cal State Fullerton.
“Now that I’m not directing at school, I’m enjoying my straight English classes a lot more,” he said. “When you’re directing, it pretty much takes up your life; there’s no room for anything else.”