Nellie and the Women of Blackwell: Immersive Theater in a Lunatic Asylum

Our safety word was “stunt reporter,” as Nellie Bly, one of the 19th century’s most celebrated journalists, took along the 18 of us undercover to the mental institution at Blackwell Island for her most famous exposé.

Since “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell,” a production by the young, woman-centered troupe Infinite Variety Productions, is taking place at Wildrence —the go-to Lower East Side underground hovel for immersive theater in New York — the implicit promise is that the audience will somehow experience the same abhorrent abuses that Bly witnessed. This is perhaps an admirable undertaking but certainly an impossibly challenging one.

In 1887, accepting an assignment from an editor at the New York World, Nellie Bly (the pen-name for the then 23-year-old Elizabeth Cochran), got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island (now an apartment complex on the renamed Roosevelt Island.)  She discovered an institution built for 1,000 that housed 1,600, in which the public was allowed to visit as if at a freak show to gawk. The food was spoiled, the nurses ill-trained and noxious, the beatings frequent. Perhaps worst of all, many of the inmates were not mentally ill; they were simply poor, or recent immigrants unable to communicate with the authorities, who therefore glibly jumped to inaccurate diagnoses.

How do you dramatize all this immersively, so that the audience feels part of the abuse without subjecting us to an unacceptable level of discomfort (nor subjecting the company to possible litigation?)

The answer from Infinite Variety’s show is: selectively, and safely.

Kate Szekely as the intrepid journalist provides steady guidance and a fine, earnest performance. There is no real attempt to give us a sense of the overcrowding, but the company, with obviously limited resources – just four cast members — does an impressive job of populating the asylum with some dozen characters, aided by recorded voiceovers and a ventriloquist’s dummy as the venal hospital doctor.

The public gawking is suggested, vaguely, by a couple of voiceovers; the inedible food by pieces of burnt toast placed before us. In one of her five roles, Nicole Orabona portrays a nurse with enough bark and scowl to shame Nurse Ratched. Ashley Adelman, the playwright of the piece, portrays Tillie, the only inmate who really registers with us; we see her being incarcerated despite her protestations that she is sane; and witness Nurse Scott’s sadistic treatment of her, making her undress in front of everybody (no actual nudity) and giving her a cold bath standing up with dirty water. Then, in a kind of epitaph, we see how this abuse has caused Tilly to deteriorate psychologically.

There is a consistent attempt to have the audience participate in the proceedings.  To give just a few examples: In the beginning, we’re each given slips of paper with our name, presumably of an inmate (Mine was Helen Cussack.)   About half the 18 are ushered into a room where we are handed hospital gowns and ordered to put them on (over our clothes), and then stood on a scale against the wall, our height and weight measured.  We are divided up into one or two at a time and brought to an examining room, where a recorded voice ordered me to look at the mirror and stick out my tongue,  “Hmmm,” the voice said “My diagnosis is​ – ​I think all of you would benefit from time away.”

I’m probably not the best judge of these efforts  (I seem generally to prefer just being a spectator, and tend to be less willing or able to go full tilt into the action than the more intense aficionados of this genre), but too much of the interactivity felt to me like perfunctory gestures. We were ushered around back and forth from room to room, to less effect than was surely intended; my strongest reaction was when I bumped my head on one of the entryways.

Still, at the end of “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell,” Szekely as Nellie tells us of the aftermath of her investigation (her articles were gathered into the book Ten Days in a Mad-House, which shocked the citizenry and led to reforms) – and we’re grateful not just for being reminded of a period of history when powerless people were mistreated and journalists tried to do something about it …..but for realizing how much that time resembles our own time.

Nellie and the Women of Blackwell
Co-produced by Wildrence and Infinite Variety Productions with production support from Bree O’Connor
Written by Ashley Adelman
Directed by Jessica Schechter
Cast: Kate Szekely as Nellie Bly
Ashley Adelman as Tillie, Mrs. Stanard
Nicole Orabona as Editor, Carrie, Roommate, Nurse Scott, Policeman
Janessa Floyd as Mrs. Caine, Mrs. Grupe, Woman on rope
Stage Management by Hadley Todoran
Costume Design by Bree O’Connor
Experiential and Scenic Design by Wildrence
Set Design by Andrew Dunn
Sound Design by Andrew Dunn
Lighting Design by Wildrence
Aslyum Doctor Voiceover by Joe Helmreich
Hospital Doctor, Judge,and Attorney Voiceover by Andrew Dunn
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $68
Nellie and the Women of Blackwell runs through March 7, 2020

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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