Typhoid Mary – Viking Theatre – Review by Frank L
Photos by Futoshi Sakauchi
Performed by Charlotte Bradley
Directed by Bairbre Ní Chaoimh
Written by Eithne McGuinness
In 1869, Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone and emigrated as a young teenager to New York where she lived with her aunt. She worked hard and became a cook to well-to-do families on the East Coast. Typhoid fever at that time was a greatly feared disease but with improved sanitation, outbreaks were becoming less frequent. However, from 1900 onwards wherever Mary worked members of the household became ill. McGuinness tells Mary’s story from her view point as the authorities, in effect, incarcerated her as an asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid bacteria. It is the story of a woman of spirit, not well educated, who was not able to understand how she could be a carrier of a disease from which she had never suffered.
Charlotte Bradley plays Mary. The set consists of a rectangular wooden table and little else besides. The back wall of the stage serves as a blackboard on which Mary writes various dates and facts which highlight her plight. Bradley plays not only Mary but also George Soper, an official who studied the course of typhoid outbreaks, and Dr.Sarah Baker a health department official. Mary had a venomous dislike of these officials and she gave them no quarter. Bradley portrays with considerable skill Mary’s fiery temper as she tries to deal with officialdom. She creates an electricity on stage as public health clashes with the rights of a hard-working woman to earn a living in the only way she knows how. Notwithstanding the grimness of Mary’s situation, Bradley reveals her anguish with fine comic touches.
The play lasts sixty minutes but in that time Bradley brings to life not only the toughness of the American East Coast existence of any young Irish emigrant, particularly female, at the end of the nineteenth century but also the emerging civil rights issues that Mary’s asymptomatic condition as a typhoid carrier created. This is a serious but engaging piece of theatre well worth a visit.