At Barrington Stage, "Typhoid Mary' unfolds in workmanlike fashion

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PITTSFIELD — As played by Tasha Lawrence in director Matthew Penn's workmanlike production of "Typhoid Mary" at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, Mary Mallon — whose sobriquet serves as the title of Mark St. Germain's play — is a tough, unyielding woman who is in a fierce battle for her life and livelihood.

A farmer's daughter born into a family with "too many mouths to feed," she says at one point, Mary was married off at the age of 15 to an older man who impregnated her and whisked her off to America on a voyage of promise and hope that turned into nightmare, despair and isolation. Alone, without her newborn infant, who dies tragically on the voyage, and her husband, whom she drives away once they reach shore, Mary makes her way in her new land as a domestic, chiefly a cook, to wealthy families primarily on Long Island, but also Westchester County and Manhattan's 60th Street.

As "Typhoid Mary" begins, she is in a cottage on North Brother Island, a facility of Riverside Hospital in New York City's Bronx borough. It is 1906 and Mary is a typhoid carrier. Her effect already has been felt and the hospital administrator and clinicians are at odds over what to do with her — keep her hospitalized, removed from a population she can easily affect; let her free to resume her livelihood as a cook and her unintended sideline as a carrier.

Mary campaigns hard for her freedom, including bombarding the state health commissioner with letters and threatening to write the press if he doesn't acquiesce. Mary does not believe she is responsible for the illness and death she has left behind; will leave behind when, finally, she wins her release; liberated under terms of a contract she signs with the New York State Department of Health which she promptly ignores; disappearing from view only to be finally apprehended, traced from fresh rounds of people she has infected, and returned to North Border Island, where she remained until her death in 1938 of a stroke.

Headstrong, determined, denying the truths science tell her, Lawrence's Mary leans on her Catholic faith for strength and support even if that leads her into challenging confrontations with a young priest, Father McKuen (well-played by Miles G. Jackson), who finds his own faith and calling tested, if not pushed to its limits, by his regular meetings with Mary.

There is a granitic resilience to Lawrence's take-no-prisoners Mary. That quality surfaces not only in her relationship with the priest but also with a young bacteriologist, Dr. Ann Saltzer (resonantly played by Keri Safran), who is hitting boundaries not only with Mary but also with a medical establishment (represented by Kevin O'Rourke's credible hospital administrator, Dr. Mills) that has yet to be convinced that women have a place in medicine.

Issues abound in "Typhoid Mary," not the least of them the nature of truth; the moral choices and consequences we face as individuals and the moral choices, consequences and responsibilities faced by our institutional guardians, particularly religion and medicine. But neither St. Germain nor Penn and his able cast lose sight of the human dimensions that shape and ground these characters.

The performances throughout are persuasive, particularly Safran's Dr. Saltzer and Jackson's Father McKuen. Frances Evans also contributes as Sarah, Mary's first victim; a young child who, in some ways, is a surrogate, a replacement for the infant Mary has lost at sea.

Penn's production is tight and efficient. "Typhoid Mary" is professionally served.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6212.


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