The world-view of Lanie Robertson's 1979 one-act The Insanity of Mary Girardshould make the play catnip to those theater troupes—i.e., all of them—that champion the marginalized and dispossessed. Its setting and style are just as enticing: a 1790 insane asylum where they're called on to play everything from jabbering mental defectives to signers of the Declaration of Independence.
But the NPR-meets-Marat/Sadeformula is undermined here by ham-fisted politics and the limp characterization of the lead character, a dilemma this otherwise fine Hunger Artists staging is unable to resolve.
Based on the story of Mary Girard, the wife of a successful trader who committed her to a Philadelphia asylum in 1790 for what he claimed were emotional outbursts and violent rages, the play argues that she was a victim of a patriarchal society and an unloving husband who punished her for getting knocked up by someone else.
The story is related through a great ensemble cast; just as engaging is the visually arresting set, consisting of a stage bare except for reams of shredded paper and an ominous chair dead center.
Director Jill Johnson does fine work with the visuals and her ensemble, but she's limited by her lead actress, Christina Acero. As written, Mary is more a symbol of feminine repression than an active participant in her own story. To counter that, a performer needs to imbue Mary with the strength and conviction of an independent woman—but Acero is all histrionic screams, clenched fists, furrowed brow and quivering lips.
The result is an uninteresting character with no inner life, which makes this truly horrific story more a gothic thriller than a serious social drama.
THE INSANITY OF MARY GIRARD AT HUNGER ARTISTS THEATRE, 699-A S. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 680-6803. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M. ALSO MON., APRIL 24, 8 P.M. THROUGH APRIL 30. $15-$18.