Elizabeth Packard’s name might be obscure to students of local history, but her fight for women’s rights and the rights of the mentally ill in the mid-1800s led to significant changes in Illinois state law.
Beginning Thursday, March 29, the NIU School of Theatre and Dance will stage the story of “Mrs. Packard,” by playwright Emily Mann, in the Stevens Building Players Theatre.
In Mann’s play, Elizabeth begins to speak out against her husband’s uncompassionate religious teachings and child-rearing practices. He becomes enraged and commits her to an insane asylum. In 1860, Illinois law allowed a husband to do this to a wife, who had no rights to due process or legal representation in a court of law.
In the asylum, Elizabeth becomes even more defiant and determined to speak up for herself. In the face of constant and even inhumane pressure, she refuses to admit that she is insane, or that her opinions are wrong. She gives up a chance to be free because it would mean agreeing with and submitting to her husband.
When Elizabeth again defies a man – the head doctor of the asylum, for his condoning of the cruel treatment of patients – she becomes an advocate for the other inmates, many of whom have suffered that same fate as she and are now helpless to defend themselves.
BFA in acting candidate Amy Powell plays the role of fellow asylum inmate, Mrs. Chatman, a woman wrongfully detained in the asylum for decades. Powell describes the women’s strength and determination under such conditions. “ ‘Mrs. Packard’ is about a woman’s fight for a voice,” she says.
Director Patricia Ridge agrees, stressing the importance of remembering women’s struggles in the past and what they have accomplished.“It matters who our ancestors are,” says Ridge. “For us women, it’s Elizabeth Packard.”
Ridge celebrates Elizabeth’s successful fight against restrictive societal expectations and highlights those early steps toward women’s independence by including only the women cast members in the play’s publicity photos. “This isn’t about the men,” says Ridge, “it’s about the women.”
The play will be performed in the round in Players Theatre. The audience will be seated 360 degrees around the stage, which Powell says is perfect for the atmosphere of the play. “The audience will be right on the stage, so I think that will really help involve them in the world of the play,” she says.
“Mrs. Packard” will be performed in the Stevens Building Players Theatre from Thursday, March 29, through Sunday, April 1, and from Thursday, April 11, through Sunday, April 15. Tickets are $16 for adults, $13 for seniors and $8 for students.
Tickets may be purchased in the Stevens Building box office, open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from noon to 2 p.m. Friday and one hour before show time. Tickets also can be ordered online or by calling (815) 753-1600.