There are tough sells in the theater world — and a play about Typhoid Mary would definitely be on that list.
That hasn’t stopped Theatre in the Round Players from tackling one of the most infamous public-health cases of the early 20th century in the form of “A Plague of Angels,” an exploration of the case and the singular character of Mary Mallon.
The play offers audiences a chance to look into the not-so-distant past, when the ideas of disease and how to prevent them were not nearly as developed as today, notes director Janice Stone.
“We have a tendency to think that the thoughts we have about hygiene have been around for a long time, but that isn’t true. Even the idea of hand-washing to prevent disease is relatively new,” Stone said.
Mark St. Germain’s play follows Mallon’s story, from a poor Irish immigrant to a pariah who infected dozens of people with the disease while working as a cook. For Stone, uncovering the history behind the play was important.
“Whenever I have a show that deals with a historical figure, I do quite a bit of research on that character,” Stone said. “In this case, I may have heard of Typhoid Mary, but I knew nothing about the case. So I did a lot of research on it. I always bring it in for the actors to see. Some actors like that, others don’t — so I let them choose.”
(See a video clip of a play production here.)
Some of that research included talking with a medical consultant to fully understand the terminology and procedures included in the play, Stone said. “The script includes some information about the treatments they would give to Mary. We needed to know what that would feel like for the person getting the shot and the person giving it.”
The play deals with several thorny issues surrounding Mary herself. “The average audience member should feel conflicted about her — they’ll feel sorry for her what she went through, but on the other hand, they’ll see her resistance to accepting her part in the disease,” she said.
In fact, Mallon was put in isolation twice. After being released the first time, she was discovered to be cooking for the public again — this time under an assumed name. She would remain in custody for the final 25 years of her life.
Theatre in the Round also will have two post-show discussions with local medical professionals about the issues explored in the play.
The presentations “help to bring in a perspective that an actor or director doesn’t have,” Stone said. “They have so much more knowledge about it than I have and it helps to lead to interesting conversations. It also helps to pull in audience members to the show you might not reach otherwise,” Stone said.
What: “A Plague of Angels”
Who: Theatre in the Round Players
Where: Theatre in the Round Players Inc., 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
When: Through Nov. 9
Oct. 26: Richard N. Danil, deputy state epidemiologist, Section Chief Acute Disease Investigation and Control, Minnesota Department of Health.
Nov. 2: Dr. David Satin, of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics and assistant professor in the U’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.