BAR HARBOR — Once again, Casey Rush, the director of Mount Desert Island High School’s one act play, has chosen a difficult, provocative drama to perform at the Maine Regional Drama Festival, which will be held at the high school on March 10 and 11.
Last year, Rush gave his student actors no less of a challenge than exploring the meaning of life with Gao Xingjian’s mysterious “Other Shore.”
This year, Rush has asked them to delve deep into the meaning of madness in the play “The Insanity of Mary Girard.”
“I selected this play as I’ve been troubled to witness the recent attacks on women’s rights playing out in our recent public discourse,” Rush said, alluding the fractious political climate of late.
The play is about a real 18th-century woman, Mary Girard, who was committed to an asylum by her husband essentially for the crime of adultery. Rush believes the topic is sadly relevant today.
He insisted that having the perfect young actor to play the demanding titular role – the aptly named Mary Paola – was more serendipity than planning.
“I didn’t cast the part until the auditions, but once Mary read for it, it was a no-brainer,” he said.
It is by no means a “no-brainer” of a role. Paola is on stage for the entire 40 or so minutes of the play, either harried by the furious furies of her past or strapped to a contraption called a “tranquilizer chair” – a real apparatus invented by a real doctor. It closely resembles an electric chair, but it is intended, however, not to kill the patient, but the evil spirits of madness that have presumably possessed her. In the course of the play, we see Girard descend from a strong, often imperious woman of substance, demanding her freedom, into the very insanity with which she has been diagnosed. In this poor woman’s historical struggle, the question looms as to whether she was mad all along or was brought to her knees by the mental torment she endured at the hands of a jealous husband (Emerson Jeffery) and abusive keepers.
As Paola plays the role, however, one is reasonably convinced that Mary, pregnant with her lover’s child and powerless to save it or herself, was driven to it.
The set, with its gauzy cell-like structures from which the embodied furies fly to torture Mary with self-doubts and accusations, is a marvel of creepiness. The Chopin mazurka that Rush has chosen to play in the background has a melancholy, clown sort of vibe to it.
The director also seems to have embraced the dramatic possibilities today’s technologies offer a stage play. Without sacrificing the essence of an 18th-century madhouse, video screens and eerie lighting effects are used to great effect.
Costume designer Marilee Marchese helped establish both the time and place with the coffee-stained muslin gowns Mary and her demons wear, the sort of outfits in which the indigent once were buried.
Light comedies, farces and light dramas might be more well-received by some festival judges and are usually easier to stage. As the head of the high school’s drama department however, Rush seems determined to make this annual theatrical event a learning experience, both for his students and, he hopes, their audiences.
“This play has a lot of potential,” he told his cast before last Saturday’s rehearsal. “And you all know I wouldn’t tell you that if I didn’t believe it. But at this point, that’s all it is, potential. We have a lot of work to do.”
His students nodded and filed onto the stage, where they got to work strapping Mary – the actor and the character – into that awful chair. A box-like thing was lowered over her head. But her terrified, blinking eyes could be seen projected on a screen that loomed above the stage.
“The Insanity of Mary Girard” will be performed as a benefit for the Black Rose Fund this Saturday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at the Higgin-Demas Theater, where its festival performance is scheduled for Friday, March 10, at 9 p.m. Other high schools performing that weekend will be Bangor High, Brewer, Belfast, Sumner Memorial, Shead Memorial, Hampden, Washington Academy and Deer Isle-Stonington.