True story: In 1860, Mrs. Elizabeth Packard, an educated woman unafraid to voice her views even when they opposed the doctrine of her rigidly Calvinist preacher husband, was forcibly taken from her home and committed by her husband to an insane asylum in Jacksonville, Ill. When she got out three years later, Mrs. Packard wrote about her travails - helping curb abuses at the institution.

Theatrical story: Mrs. Packard opened at McCarter Theatre Center's Berlind Theatre, in Princeton, on Friday night. Emily Mann's new play, which she also directed, is an earnest blow-by-blow of Mrs. Packard's incarceration and the circumstances leading to it.

One of the legacies of the real Mrs. Packard, her great-great-grandson Donald Cairns, of West Chester, was in the opening-night audience to watch his fictionalized ancestor. If his genuine relative had interests as broad as Mann's stage creation, she was quite a woman.

As a theatrical character, though, she's too hard to pin down. Is Mrs. Packard in trouble for speaking out as a woman of religious principle? In the play, her commitment came about because she visibly and vocally defied her husband, and even prayed with Methodists.

Or is she in hot water - more accurately, in bitter-cold bath water, being head-dunked mercilessly by asylum staff - because she's a whistle-blower, privately scribbling down every abuse she sees? Or has she been pegged as crazy because she's a feminist, jumping to the defense of women who haven't the abilities to speak their minds? Will the real Mrs. Packard please stand up (preferably unshackled)?

I don't fault Mann, the McCarter's versatile artistic director, for attempting to display her character's full intellectual range, but I wish she would have reined the character in. I felt, at the end, as though Mrs. Packard (beautifully acted by Kathryn Meisle) was a constant complainer. I also found her preacher husband (well-rendered by John C. Vennema) so one-dimensional that he became tedious.

I do fault Mann for inmates who howl and cackle on cue, then become totally silent when dialogue begins. And for a script that fogs characters' motivation. Just why is the asylum chief (the appropriately flinty Dennis Parlato) so attracted to Mrs. Packard, and why does he magically turn up to save her when she's being tortured in her confinement?

Mrs. Packard effectively questions a social system so narrow it eventually closes in on itself. And it leaves a lot of questions in its path.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro.

Written and directed by Emily Mann. Scenery by Eugene Lee, costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, lighting by Jeff Croiter, sound and music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

Cast: Kathryn Meisle (Elizabeth Packard), John C. Vennema (Theophilus Packard); Dennis Parlato (Dr. McFarland), Fiana Toibin (Mrs. Bonner), Julie Boyd (Mrs. Tenney).

Playing at: Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J., through June 10. Tickets: $35-$48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.

EndText