The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 21, 2013

Infectious history: MSU debuts play about Typhoid Mary

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

MANKATO — Besides Minnesota State University, it appears no other theatre in the country will be staging a production of “Plague of Angels” this year.

Yet, Matthew Caron has known for almost a decade that it would someday be his to direct. In fact, when Caron interviewed for acceptance into the Department of Theatre and Dance master’s program, the exploration of the life and forced quarantine of Mary Mallon — otherwise known as Typhoid Mary — was No. 1 on the list of plays he hoped to direct.

“I had a chance to see it several years ago,” said the first-year master’s candidate in directing, referring to its performance at the American College Theatre Festival in Evansville, Ill., in 2004.

“At that time, nobody had ever heard of it. But I was really drawn to it.”

The play is, of course, based on Mallon’s real-life account.

A stout Irish woman who worked as a cook in the New York area at the turn of the 20th century, Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. For nearly a decade, a trail of typhoid victims followed wherever Mallon was cooking food. She is thought to have infected upward of 50 people, causing at least three deaths.

Following the results of an investigation by typhoid researcher George Soper, Mallon spent the majority of her remaining life in forced quarantine until her death in 1938.

Even as she became a minor celebrity during her quarantine at North Brother Island from 1915 until 1938, her body teemed so heavily with the pathogen that visitors were not allowed to accept a glass of water from her hands.

“I’m a sucker for history,” Caron said. “The story is based on actual events that happened to an actual woman who had to deal with this forced isolation.”

But what Caron said he finds even more interesting is how the play explores the nature of forgiveness.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, Mallon stubbornly refused to admit she was causing any sickness. In turn, health officials kept her imprisoned and isolated.

“It’s not a happy ending,” Caron said. “Some people just can’t forgive. That’s a concept I latched onto.”

Amanda Foreman, an MSU senior in acting, plays the role of Typhoid Mary. Caron praised her for her subdued and nuanced approach to the script.

“There is a great opportunity for some really interesting acting,” he said. “There are some really subtle acting sequences with lots of silence. ... (Foreman) is really doing a phenomenal job capturing this.”

Though “Plague of Angels” is making its MSU debut, the production marks the conclusion of MSU’s 2012-13 Studio season.