Mark St. Germain’s A Plague of Angels at Theatre in the Round, one of the Twin Cities’ best companies, is a good production that could’ve been better written and should’ve been better directed.
It’s hard not to be interested in a play about Mary “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, the infamous individual who infected almost 50 New Yorkers with typhoid fever, killing three, before she was forcibly quarantined for three years—after which she was freed and, violating the conditions of her release, infected 25 more people before being apprehended and isolated again, this time for the rest of her life. Whether you have a fascination with history or just plain morbid curiosity, the tale of such a person’s life is bound to get your attention. However, once Mark St. Germain gets your attention, he doesn’t do a great deal with it except provide the facts and try to push along a story that keeps dragging its feet. The characters don’t have enough dimension and spend almost as much time telling as they do showing the tale of Typhoid Mary.
A Plague of Angels, a play written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Janice Stone. Presented through November 9 at Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets ($20) and information, see theatreintheround.org.
Director Janice Stone doesn’t help much, largely confining Jean Salo to a one-note portrayal of Mallon. We know from the history books that Mallon refused to acknowledge her culpability as the carrier of a dreaded disease—that she was, in fact, adamant to the point of such massive denial as is generally found in alcoholics who blame everything for their troubles but the bottle they keep drinking from. Stone, though, renders Mary Mallon a raging, wholly unsympathetic malcontent who never so much as smiles until she gets her way (when they decide to release her from quarantine). All the way up until the last moments of the play Mallon comes across as an arbitrarily evil woman. It’s understandable that Mary’s in denial—how readily would you be willing to admit even to yourself that you carried typhoid fever and were infecting practically everyone who ate anything you cooked? There was a lost opportunity to reveal Mary’s humanity: what anguish, or at least trepidation, she may have gone through. Here’s the good news: Jean Salo is splendid. She gives Mary the kind of steely grit for which Irish women long have been famous. Once she’s permitted to show some range, Salo rescues the production, breathing vital life into it at the last possible minute.
Mallon died on November 11, 1938 at the age of 69. The cause of death was pneumonia, coming six years after a stroke had left her paralyzed. But St. Germain tells you she died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve. So you can’t be sure what’s fact here. For instance, did Mary seduce a bed-hopping doctor into compromising himself before stopping him short? What relationship, if any, did she actually have with the 12-year-old typhoid victim of a family for which she worked? If the playwright will fudge something as cut-and-dried as the date and cause of his character’s death, he’ll certainly manufacture circumstance and invent interaction in order to create drama. (All the seduction scene creates is an inexplicably asinine moment in an otherwise serviceable story.) St. Germain, point of fact, is not a particularly gifted playwright. His characters start the play on a dull note, narrating the exposition; later, they intermittently slow things down by narrating again. His dialogue is merely a step above pedestrian and given to self-conscious, would-be profundity. As a marginally saving grace, St. Germain shows a modicum of insight into human nature, delivering a reasonably sound climax. That Time called this one of 1991’s ten best plays proves the publication is better suited to news reporting than arts coverage. Either that or it was a year of considerably slim pickings.
Ultimately, though, A Plague of Angels is worth going to see, in order to view an interesting piece of history and to witness a wonderful performance by Jean Salo.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.