Reviews and Press for
The Insanity of Mary Girard ::

from the New Orleans Times-Picayune (2013), Gambit Weekly New Orleans (2013),
NOLA Defender (2013), and The Advocate (2013)

Review: Insanity of Mary Girard an engrossing drama on the abuse of the mentally ill

By Theodore P. Mahne, theatre critic, New Orleans Times-Picayune, 22 January 2013

As we head into the height of Carnival season, most theaters either give up on the idea of competing with the floating stages of the streets or tie into it all with lighthearted Mardi Gras fare. In Faubourg Marigny, however, there is a dramatic bit of counter-programming being offered that one hopes will be extended after Fat Tuesday. It would be unfortunate if The Insanity of Mary Girard was lost in the fray.

The one-act drama by Lanie Robertson is receiving its local premiere at the Shadowbox Theatre with a production that is as engrossing as it is unsettling.

The play centers on the story of the wife of a noted 18th-century Philadelphia financier who was committed to a mental asylum. Born Mary Lum, she was a working-class girl about 10 years younger than her husband, Stephen Girard. After several years of marriage in which she did not have a child, she became pregnant by a lover not her husband. Little else is known about the historic Mary Girard other than these bare facts.

Is she actually mentally ill? Or has her husband had her locked up in the asylum as a means of both punishing and disposing of her? Robertson chooses the darker answers to offer a harrowing look at the treatment of mental illness in the late 18th and early 19th century, adding a subtext questioning: Just how far has that treatment come?

As the audience enters the theater, Mary Girard is already seated at the center of the bare stage, strapped into a large wooden chair, hands and feet bound. A large wooden block covers her head. If she were not already mad, it is clear that this snake pit would bring her to the breaking point.

In the title role, Amy Woodruff captures the sadness and the horror of Mary's situation. Her performance, however, does not merely induce pity. She shows a steadfast drive, befuddled at first but determined to fight -- for her unborn child, for her dignity as a human being, and to hold onto her sanity, futile as the quest soon becomes.

Confined from her first day -- or so we are told -- to the "Tranquility Chair," the primitive sensory deprivation (not to mention the bloodletting) has left Mary in a daze, unsure of her surroundings or any sense of time. Released temporarily by a lecherous warder, played with a creeping evilness by Glenn Aucoin, she is beset by a group of taunting Furies.

Each wears an elaborate mask, expressively designed by Aubrey Schwartz, representing some exotic aquatic life. Mary's father was a shipbuilder; part of Stephen Girard's fortune came from a shipping fleet. They are effectively played by Aucoin, Rebecca Meyers, Michael Martin, Kristi Webb and Tiffany Wolf, as they create an auditory haze for Mary and the audience, speaking in tandem, lines overlapping one another, thoughts floating from one to the other, like waves crashing against Mary's mind, eroding away her defenses.

As she cries out for help, each Fury becomes a character from her life. As the play is more of a psychological character study than plot driven, these brief encounters offer the only moments of dramatic exposition.

Webb is chillingly distant as Mary's unsympathetic mother. Wolf saucily taunts Mary as the younger, prettier little housemaid who has replaced her in her husband's bed. Martin reveals genuine sorrow for her plight as the director of the asylum; his ethical scruples about falsely confining Mary are overcome, however, by the promise of generous financial support. And Meyers pushes things over the brink leading a maniacal act of cruelty that leaves the audience shuddering.

James Howard Wright Jr. plays Stephen Girard with a steely fire, showing enough distance to make the cruelty of his actions more deeply intensified.

It must be noted that in painting Stephen Girard as a cold villain, Robertson is at odds with the historical image of the rest of his life. He is remembered even today in Philadelphia (much like John McDonogh is in New Orleans) for his philanthropic efforts, especially in establishing educational opportunities and seeing to the welfare of orphans.

Matt Story has chosen a challenging work with which to make his directorial debut. He not only meets the challenges but overcomes the play's biggest problem -- the question of whether it is true.

Called "a dream in one act" (nightmare would be more accurate), Story, assisted by Monica Harris, effectively establishes the sense of fantasy by pulling together the atmospheric elements of good theater. Vic Woodward's evocative lighting deserves particular merit. Creating a tightly wound thriller, Story allows enough ambiguity to remain between the hard-edged realism and what could become cartoonish villainy to prevent it all from becoming an exercise in absurdity.

Story and his cast also convey the playwright's subtext, claiming that the treatment of the mentally ill may be more refined but is only marginally improved today, as overwrought as the case might seem. While most would obviously dispute her argument, as audiences at The Insanity of Mary Girard leave the theater, they walk by the Tranquility Chair and might wonder if that device has merely been replaced by various doses of tranquilizers today.

originally published at:

to Woodruff's artist page | to Theatre Louisiane

Review: The Insanity of Mary Girard, creepy new show at the Shadowbox Theatre

By Dalt Wonk, theatre critic, Gambit Weekly New Orleans, 29 January 2013

Adam Tourek's set for The Insanity of Mary Girard, currently on the boards at The Shadowbox Theatre, is simple and effective. It gives you the creeps. Surrounded by black space, a barefoot (sic) woman in a white 18th-century dress sits in a wooden armchair reminiscent of an electric chair. Leather straps restrain her arms and waist, and a boxlike contraption completely covers her head.

The play is fictionalized history. A Philadelphian named Stephen Girard amassed a fortune in the late 1700s. He married a 16-year-old lower-class girl named Mary, and several years later he had her committed to an insane asylum. Lanie Robertson's 1996 (sic) play imagines her life.

Mary Girard (Amy Woodruff) is locked in a "tranquilizer chair" in the asylum. She is visited by a chorus of Furies -- masked figures wearing 18th-century garb. They taunt and deride her, speaking in rounds and sometimes completing each others' sentences.

Initially, vague patterns of light play on Mary and there is a recurring oceanic sound. The Furies' masks represent sea creatures, such as an octopus or jellyfish, and the underwater elements seem to imply her subconscious. The Furies release Mary from the tranquilizer chair and form a circle around her.

Who are they? "We're no one," "Inmates," "Ghosts" and "We're figments of your imagination," they say.

Mary demands respect. She also demands to be released, but as long as Stephen wants her there, she won't get out.

The basic arrangement between Mary and her masked tormenters persists through the play. At times, a Fury will drop his or her mask and play a character from Mary's life. And there also are a few scenes with other characters -- most pointedly her husband Stephen (James Howard Wright Jr.).

In vain, Mary importunes the coarse warder (Glenn Aucoin) for her freedom. She is visited by her mother (Kristi Webb), who resents being snubbed by the Girards and blames her daughter for not being submissive enough to her husband. Mary also is visited by one of Stephen's mistresses, Polly (Tiffany Wolf), who says she knows how to play the love game and win.

Finally, we see a scene outside of the asylum. An asylum authority (Michael Martin) visits Girard, gives him the news that his wife is pregnant and says she should be released. Girard is unmoved and brusquely bribes the manager and promises large grants to the institution.

It's protofeminism in a dreary atmosphere, but the play is well-crafted. Director Matt Story assembled a strong cast and guided them effectively. It included impressive performances by Woodruff in the title role and Wolf as her sexual antagonist. Theatre Louisiane produced the drama.

originally published at:

to Woodruff's artist page | to Theatre Louisiane

Review: The Insanity of Mary Girard

By Phil Yiannopoulos, theatre critic, NOLA Defender, 23 January 2013

Last weekend, the Shadowbox Theatre opened Lanie Robertson's The Insanity of Mary Girard, a chilling piece of powerlessness and despair.

Wasting no time, the title character sits atop some mix of driftwood throne and rotting electric chair in the pre-show decor. As such, the audience has no choice but to sit uncomfortably while waiting for the beginning of the show.

Initially, Amy Woodruff, as Mary Girard, convincingly portrays the fraying innocence and confusion of waking up in what the audience quickly learns to be the "tranquilizer chair." Bound to her chair, she can only whip her head from side to side and try to speak while the Furies quickly surround her. With elaborate masks designed by Aubrey Schwartz, these aquatic-themed characters become ghastly iterations of the unknown and haunting depths of the oceans of reality, and of our minds.

Most of the play occurs with a center-staged (though unbound) Mary being taunted by these Furies, sometimes finishing each other's lines, running over them, or eerily repeating themselves. This sporadic, yet established pattern breaks when the lusty, corrupt warder (strikingly performed by Glenn Aucoin) makes the physical reality of the situation more horrifying than insanity of the mind. Mary pleads and bribes, letting the constant movement of the scene directly contrast the statuesque Furies and also reinforce the stage's sense of confinement.

Other scenes include a desperate conversation with her mother (Kristi Webb), revelations by a mistress of her household (Tiffany Wolf), and a discussion between the director of the hospital (Michael Martin) and the cold Stephen Girard (James Howard Wright Jr.). The last of these scenes contain the dreadful factual punch of the play: a man abuses his monetary power to control a woman's fate, both physically and mentally.

Whatever one may say of the script or the performances, the true power of the work rests in its necessity. The story, unbelievably, is based in truth: Stephen Girard, eighteenth-century philanthropist and millionaire, sent his wife to the Pennsylvania Hospital simply because he wanted to be rid of her. Fortunately, the production does not fail to bring to light the evilness of such a deed and the plight of its victim.

The end of the play becomes Woodruff's tour de force as she finally comprehends the futility of the situation through a conversation with her husband. The process of her being broken throughout the play reaches its height in a well-performed, well-designed and haunting conclusion.

originally published at:

to Woodruff's artist page | to Theatre Louisiane

Feature Story: Mind Games -- A wealthy businessman sends
his wife to an asylum in The Insanity of Mary Girard at the Shadowbox

By Barri Bronston, special to The Advocate, 28 January 2013

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.

originally published at:

to Woodruff's artist page | to Theatre Louisiane