Carlton play to explore mental health, women’s issues

A group of furies surround Mary Girard, played by Samantha Paradis (seated at centre) in the latest production from Carlton Comprehensive High School’s Mad Hatter Theatre Company. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald.

Mad Hatter Theatre Company artistic director David Zulkoskey has waited nearly two decades to find the right group of students to put on the company’s upcoming production.
After 19 years, he’s confident he has his group.
The Carlton Comprehensive Public High School drama company is in the process of bringing “The Insanity of Mary Girard” to the stage for a one-day only performance on March 21. Playwright Lanie Robertson’s eerie and tragic historical drama is full of heavy themes and difficult subject matter, but after years of leaving the play on the shelf, Zulkoskey said this group is talented and mature enough to take on the responsibility.
“A lot of people are truly ignorant of this time period and the roles of men and women in this time period,” he explained. “I needed a group of kids who could take this seriously. In the process, they’ve had fun and they’ve learned a lot.”
Set in 1790, the story focuses on the downward spiral of Mary Girard, who is declared legally insane at the behest of her husband, Stephen, and sent to an asylum.
The play received positive reviews after it was published in 1979, with critics applauding its portrayal of mental illness and the rights and roles of men and women in 18th Century society.
The Mad Hatter version made a few changes to the script, with Robertson’s blessing, to create an expanded version that Zulkoskey hopes will get people thinking about how society treats women and people struggling with mental illness.
“A key thing in the program is the idea of empathy,” he explained. “The play is full of moments in which Mary is tormented and bullied, and if we’re really going to deal with that in our society, I think we need to find a way to care about others, and that’s done through empathy.”
The play has its roots in the life of the historical Mary Lum Girard, the wife of a wealthy Philadelphia banker and philanthropist. The real Girard had a history of violent and uncontrolled outbursts, and was declared insane and committed to an asylum while pregnant.
Although historical accounts note Girard’s husband spent lavishly on her medical care, he also took a mistress to replace her, a practice that was considered natural at the time. By most historical accounts, her husband considered their marriage to be over. The real Mary would live on for another 25 years.
As part of the Mad Hatter production, one student did extensive historical research into the period to bring 18th Century to life. For the cast and crew, seeing the how women like Girard were treated was shocking.
“Definitely times have changed,” said Grade 12 student Samantha Paradis, who plays the title role of Mary. “I think mental illness is a big thing nowadays. People are talking about it more, which is good, and I think doing this play gives a little bit of insight into how things have changed … and how mental illness is something that is still relevant today.”
“Looking back at these social contexts, you can see so clearly in the play how we’ve progressed as a society,” added stage manager and student director Jordyn Pillar. “It makes you think, ‘wow, I’ can’t believe that was a thing.’”
Although the play is full of difficult themes and heavy topics, Paradis and Pillar said the cast and crew aren’t intimidated. Instead, they’re looking forward to the challenge. In fact, the cast and crew were actually the ones who suggested performing the play in the first place.
“It crosses a lot of controversial topics that are seen in today’s society, such as feminism and things like that, which I think is pretty cool, to bring in a play that is set in 1790, but relates to today’s society,” Pillar explained.
Both students, along with Zulkoskey, say it’s a timely play, as society struggles to deal with the effects of mental illness and the revelations that spawned the #metoo movement. Ideally, they’re hoping it will get people thinking about where society is headed now, while giving them a chance to appreciate high quality theatre, where the costumes, the stage props and even the soundtrack is student designed.
“I hope that (audiences) will enjoy it, be entertained and also get to see a little bit of what hard work and team work does,” Paradis said. “We all enjoy doing it and we love to put on a good show for everyone.”
Mad Hatter Theatre Company will also perform the play at the Saskatchewan Drama Association Region 11 Festival in Saskatoon on March 24.