Barrington Stage Company: "Typhoid Mary" examines ethical responsibilities of medical institutions

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PITTSFIELD — Her name was Mary Mallon. She was known as Typhoid Mary. She emigrated to the United States from County Cork in Ireland in 1883 and found work as a domestic, chiefly as cook, in various households in New York City and on Long Island. At some point, she became a carrier of typhoid fever.

"Her career began in 1900, when she infected a family in Mamaroneck, N.Y., with typhoid fever," hospital administrator Dr. William Mills explains in Mark St. Germain's play, "Typhoid Mary," which opens Barrington Stage Company's 2018 season Sunday afternoon at 3 in the intimate St. Germain Stage — after a series of previews that began Wednesday.

Told in the play's present, flashback and memory, "Typhoid Mary" charts Mary's determined, ultimately successful legal battle to free herself of her quarantine at Riverside Hospital's North Brother Island, a New York City Department of Health isolation treatment center in The Bronx. Once released, she virtually disappeared, disregarded the conditions set by the court — which forbade her from working anywhere as a cook — and infected more people. She eventually was found and returned to North Brother Island, where she remained until her death in November 1938 at age 69. All in all, 51 typhoid cases, and three deaths, were attributed to her.

Originally titled "Forgiving Typhoid Mary," the play made its first appearance in 1988 as a work-in-development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., with Linda Hunt as Mary.

"We were in the middle of the AIDS epidemic," St. Germain said over a light breakfast and coffee, and a Coke, at a coffeehouse in Great Barrington, not far from the year-round South County home he recently purchased. He had read an article about an HIV/AIDS patient who had won his release from a hospital and proceeded to have unprotected sex, infecting his partners in the process. "Did the hospital have the right to keep him?" St. Germain asked rhetorically.

"[In writing this play], I wanted to use the past to examine the ethical responsibilities of our medical establishment," St. Germain writes in a preface to "Typhoid Mary" in an anthology, "Collected Plays of Mark St. Germain."

The play was produced in 1991 with Estelle Parsons as Mary and Harriet Harris as research bacteriologist Dr. Ann Saltzer at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., and has been seen at several regional theaters since.

The play comes to Barrington Stage at a time when "several well-known politicians and public figures started doubting the findings in scientific research," BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd said in an email, "I thought of Mark's 'Typhoid Mary,' called him and asked him to revisit the play.

"The powerful topics of science vs religion were already present in the play, but could be further developed. Mark loved the idea and decided to revise it. I was thrilled with the revision and decided we had to produce his play this season."

Matthew Penn is directing. St. Germain says he's pleased with the veteran director's approach. "He has a good feel for actors," St. Germain said. "He's acted, so he knows what actors go through."

This production features Tasha Lawrence as Mary and Keri Safran as Dr. Saltzer, whose dramatic arc in the play looms almost as large as Mary's. "Dr. Saltzer knows she failed Mary and could have prevented more deaths," St. Germain said.

Saltzer represents one kind of truth — science; fact. Mary represents another, drawn from her faith.

"You want the truth? Look into the microscope," Saltzer challenges Mary at one point.

"I'm alive. I am the truth," Mary responds. "Who needs science when I know the truth? It doesn't take a microscope to see stupidity."

Relative truth, St. Germain calls it, and it ripples through the play.

Mary comes from a background of poverty. "Mary is lifted into a whole different world when she cooks for wealthy families," St. Germain said. "[This quarantine] takes away her identity."

Mary draws much of her truth, her strength, from the Bible — Deuteronomy, Psalms.

"I found myself going through the Bible looking for references to health that would justify her world view," St. Germain said.

"Mary's arc [in the play] is to want to believe and, in the process, shake up the people around her. Mary has to believe she's right or there's no play."

Mary Mallon is part of a gallery of real-life figures who have been central characters in St. Germain's plays — Albert Einstein, Dr. Ruth, Henry Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Edison, President Warren G. Harding, F. Scott Fitzgerald, among them.

"I like reading biographies and mysteries," St. Germain said. "When something makes sense to me, I like to investigate. Why, for example, would anyone want to take Harding on a camping trip?

"Relativity," his play about Albert Einstein, premiered at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn., last fall. He has a new murder-mystery about to open in Florida but, he says, no plays with historic figures are on the horizon.

"One of the reasons," he says, "is because I haven't found anyone who interests me."

     


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