The term “Typhoid Mary,” used for someone who spreads a disease, is well-known – but less-so where the term originated. Enter Barrington Stage’s gripping production of Typhoid Mary, based on the true story of the woman saddled with the moniker; you’ll leave knowing not only where the term came from, but, as an audience member leaving the production said, “this play really impressed upon me how important it is to wash your hands.”
It’s the early 1900s, and Mary Mallon (Tasha Lawrence) – better known as Typhoid Mary – has been quarantined on North Brother Island in New York City; she’s been working as a cook for a number of families, and in each household, some of the staff and family members have become ill with typhoid fever, leading to some of their deaths. It’s been discovered by the doctors at the facility (Kevin O’Rourke, Keri Safran) that Mary is a carrier; while she doesn’t show symptoms, she passes along the bacteria and infects others through the food she makes. Mary doesn’t believe in bacteria and wants nothing more than to be freed from quarantine to go back and live her life, despite discussions with the doctors and her spiritual advisor, Father McKuen (Miles G. Jackson.)
This show, written by a founding board member of Barrington Stage Company, Mark St. Germain, works well on a number of levels; it’s extremely rich in not only its portrayal of life in the early 20th Century, but of women’s roles in society, science and religion. Mary is a fascinating character; it would be easy to assume that someone who’d infected a number of people with a deadly disease would be ignorant (or perhaps murderous) but she’s nothing of the sort – she’s intelligent, thoughtful, angry at her lot in life and surprisingly humorous and sympathetic. We may not understand why she makes the choices she does, but we’re not able to hate her for making them.
Lawrence gives a stellar performance as Mary; she’s found the depths of the character and made her so believable and realistic it’s fascinating to watch her perform. Her scenes with Frances Evans, playing Sarah, a young girl whose family she worked for with disastrous results, are heartbreaking; her scenes with Safran are a master class, with two strong women toe-to-toe in a society that discounts both of them. Safran does fine work, as well – a young woman facing discrimination daily in a male-dominated field, driven by her love of science. Jackson portrays a man struggling with his faith beautifully.
Brian Prather’s set design is perfectly moody – Mary’s cabin is dark and spare, adding to the shadowy feel of the production and the memories she dips in and out of throughout.
This isn’t a light, airy production, but one that will make you think – and hopefully discuss on the way home. Wonderful work by everyone involved – if you’re going to make history come alive, how better than with a show as powerful as this.
“Typhoid Mary”; Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, MA; through June 16; $48-$15; Run time: 1 hour and 35 minutes with a 10-minute intermission; 413-236-8888; https://barringtonstageco.org/