Friday, May 1, 2015

Phoenix Theatre's 'Typhoid Mary' evokes mass fears of ragin' contagion

Playwright-in-residence Tom Horan's new work, 'Typhoid Mary," moves the Phoenix Theatre's season-long emphasis on comedy right to the theme's bitter edge.

There are laughs to be had in the concise two-act play, to be sure. And the post-modernist style — balanced on the narrative validity of both realism and fantasy in a seriocomic blend — allows us to keep the terror of long-ago epidemic fears at bay. But as seen Thursday night, this is still a scary, emotionally wrenching piece of work, directed in its premiere production by Bill Simmons.

Reminders of the Ebola scare come to mind; unfortunately, political polarization helped stoke the recent panic, but comparisons inevitably beg to be made. The extra boost of notoriety in the turn-of-the-20th-century case of the Irish immigrant Mary Mallon (quickly tagged as Typhoid Mary) was her asymptomatic status. This gave her an immunity she took for a sign of grace. Not inclined to trust science (a reluctance still widespread), that failure to contract typhoid fever seemed enough to hold her blameless. The record mounted: serial infection of several households that employed her, enough to stigmatize the hapless cook.

Her feisty noncooperation tended to criminalize her carrier status. Failure to acknowledge responsibility and evasiveness for the sake of remaining employable isolated her even further. Horan's script also brings out the disdain for Irish immigrants among the WASP establishment. She also had  the misfortune to come to the public's attention in the age of yellow journalism. The perfect storm: Typhoid Mary became larger than life, almost larger than death.

Lauren Briggeman plays Mary, investing the role with fathomless resources of defiance and
Typhoid Mary (Lauren Briggeman)
self-delusion. The character reflects repeatedly on how she'd been roughly trained as a cook by her mother. In that school of hard knocks she was able to nurture an illusion of purity impervious to standards of cleanliness that were properly considered bulwarks against the dread disease. So simple and implacable is her resistance that the line about paranoia Horan gives her rings false. I don't think she would have known the word; her view of germs as "little imps" seems spot-on, however.

Her purity, recharged by pious devotion to the Virgin Mary, is focused on her abilities as a cook. When commanded by the law never to take a kitchen job again, she clearly needs to violate the order to maintain vitality. A female Antaeus, her sole source of strength is cooking. Alienated from that by judicial order, she is defenseless. But society became only marginally safer — there were other asymptomatic carriers, after all. She was singled out and made an example of. Her final, indefinite confinement amounted to an excruciatingly protracted death sentence.

Ben Asaykwee and Jolene Mentink Moffatt play the medical personnel most involved in Typhoid Mary's case. Asaykwee's brilliant, uptight George is a character slightly dense outside his comfort zone of medical sleuthing. His people skills are minimal, and dealing with Mary Mallon requires an extra amount of them. George's female colleague, Sara, is shrewder, if hobbled by defensiveness about her status as a female physician.

George puts forward his thoughts about Typhoid Mary to Sara.
She masks her uneasiness about being considered authoritative by drawing on a supply of doctor jokes, which she uses to put people at ease. Moffatt sketched a sympathetic portrait of Sara, which she played cannily as the reality check George so often needs. Both actors also move adroitly into and out of a cluster of subsidiary roles, making each one vivid in turn. All three are thoroughly disguised as giant ravens in one brief scene in which the verdict of quarantine is imposed on Mary. The clumsy isolation last year of nurses who treated Ebola came chillingly to mind.

Linda Janosko's set is a plain arrangement of doors and drawers, cabinetry suggestive of a kitchen, but also of the bland institutional environs where Typhoid Mary is forced to spend so much time. Behind the doors lie any number of secrets, it's implied, no doubt more than the wretched life of Typhoid Mary could ever reveal.

[Photos by Ben Rose]