Writer: Ashley Adelman
Director: Jessica Schechter
Reviewer: Adrienne Sowers*
Tucked away behind a very unsuspecting door on Canal Street is the Wildrence immersive performance space. Walking up to the building, one wonders what sort of performance could take place beyond the grated metal door atop a set of stairs leading to the basement. What Wildrence has done turning this into a dedicated immersive performance space is incredibly laudable, and Infinite Variety Productions’ Nellie and the Women of Blackwell is a perfect fit for the intimate, deceptively flexible space.
An ensemble cast of four comprises roughly a dozen characters throughout the show, with Kate Szekely playing only the titular Nellie Bly. Each audience member is assigned an “undercover identity” with which to experience this immersive docudrama, as well as a catchall safe word for anyone that finds the experience too intense and needs to leave. With the disturbing things Nellie Bly uncovered at Blackwell in writing Ten Days in a Madhouse, the play can get quite intense, though nobody from the group at this particular performance asked to leave. The audience is taken on a journey from Bly’s pitch to the editors of The World, a now-defunct New York newspaper, through the house for working women at which Bly staged her breakdown to be admitted to Blackwell, and finally to the asylum itself. The cruelty of the way women were treated, in and out of the asylum, is palpable in each moment.
Through the handful of ever-changing rooms at Wildrence, the audience is surrounded by the sounds, textures, sights, and chill of the asylum. There are distant screams and dark rooms, washtubs full of freezing water and slab-like beds. Nurses are abrupt, cruel, and unable to keep the identities of all their patients straight. The doctor is cleverly portrayed as a ventriloquist dummy, manned by performers with a voiceover provided by Joseph Helmreich. There is despair and angst and quite a lot of atrocities happen throughout the show; one easily could think that Bly spent ninety days in Blackwell rather than ten. The relentless torment the patients at this asylum faced are viscerally unrelenting as the play unfolds.
Writer Ashley Adelman takes on the role of Tillie, beautifully and organically encapsulating how a sane person can be driven mad when subjected to the horrors of nineteenth century “mental health treatment”. Kate Szekely is strong and dynamic as Nellie Bly. And Nicole Orabona and Janessa Floyd flow in and out of their several characters with ease. The entire piece rings with specificity, creating a visceral understanding of how terrible these conditions truly were.
It is absolutely worth a trip to that blue metal door in Chinatown to experience the harrowing tale that waits behind and below it. Nellie and the Women of Blackwell honors the work of Bly and the stories of the women in Blackwell. It also serves a timely reminder that treating others as though they are a danger is the best way to guarantee they will become one, and that those willing to take a risk can often make a change.
Runs Until 8 March 2020 | Photo Credit: Samantha Szekely
*This reviewer is a friend and former collaborator with cast member Nicole Orabona. However, this review was written without bias.