Most people know of a woman known as Typhoid Mary, an actual person who never showed symptoms of the disease, yet, while working as a cook, transmitted it to others. But what do we truly know about Mary Mallon?
The strange-but-true nature of the story makes it perfect for the stage, and Phoenix Theatre playwright-in-residence Tom Horan presents a fascinating based-on-facts drama in “Typhoid Mary,” playing through Sunday at the Phoenix in downtown Indianapolis.
In early-1900s New York, Mallon (played by Lauren Briggeman) is an Irish immigrant whose life centers on her Catholic faith and devotion to the Virgin Mary, as well as to cooking for various families, which she sees as her true vocation. She has never been sick and prays for those around her mysteriously falling ill, sure that it was a failure in their character or devotion that brought on their sickness.
However, a typhoid researcher, George Soper (Ben Asaykwee), is certain that Mary is somehow an asymptomatic carrier of the disease — something unheard of at that time — and seeks to prove it. After his initial efforts fail, only infuriating the foul-mouthed Mary, he turns to New York City Health Department physician Sara Baker (Jolene Mentink Moffatt).
By this point, Mary feels so persecuted that not even a female doctor can persuade her to submit to testing, and she is taken by force and put into quarantine. Since she shows no symptoms, she eventually wins her freedom, with a promise to never cook for another person. But opportunities for a poor Irish immigrant woman are few, and the kitchen is the only place she feels at home.
Playwright Horan and director Bill Simmons’ jobs are made much easier by the one-two punch of a true-life story that is fascinating on its own and the play’s excellent cast. The story itself is told in an easy-to-follow manner, with Asaykwee and Moffatt providing narration and Briggeman giving Mary’s internal monologue.
The set, cleverly designed by Linda Janosko, seems sterile and clinical yet complex, with walls of cabinet doors that stow away props that are revealed only when needed.
Asaykwee and Moffatt also portray other men and women in the story, who Mary, in her perpetual and righteous anger, only sees as George and Sara. They deftly slide into and out of personae, and Asaykwee turns on his easy charm for moments that are comic, yet never diminishes the seriousness of the drama.
Briggeman, no stranger to either the Phoenix stage or to challenging complex leading roles (she brilliantly portrayed Hamlet last summer) delivers another compelling and perfect performance. She communicates to us her character’s plight and struggle with forces she can’t and refuses to understand, bridging the gap to us who watch from our perspective after a century of medical advances.
Find “Mary” on the Basile underground stage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.