Typhoid Mary is the second play I’ve heard by the Phoenix Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, Tom Horan. The first was a staged reading last year of his work-in-progress about Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. That play, like the currently running full production of Typhoid Mary, explores history as something that overlaps the present rather than something that only happened in the past, and as something that merges the factual with the magical or dreamlike. Horan’s perhaps trademark approach is disconcerting but invigorating and ultimately satisfying.
The world premiere of Typhoid Mary is also somehow funny. It opens with Jolene Mentink Moffatt playing a doctor telling doctor jokes, for example. A little later, Lauren Briggeman as Irish cook Mary Mallon flirts aggressively in a funny way with the socially awkward doctor (Ben Asaykwee) that asks her for “samples.”
Yet this is not a spoof of Mary’s story, in which a low-income immigrant woman was labeled the sole source of the typhoid epidemic and quarantined for years so that other, more powerful people could pretend they were safe. Under Bill Simmons’ direction, this three-actor, multi-character play gently stirs up contemporary prejudices surrounding food, health, religion, the poor, and more. All three actors are excellent.
Linda Janosko’s set design looks drab at first but it contains cupboards and drawers that hide a variety of miniature sets and over-sized props that together add another layer of mystery and resonance to the talk of microbes and epidemics.