Two Hours (Happily) Spent in a Madhouse with Nellie Bly

amanda jefferson-gillis

One of the greatest things about DaPoPo Theatre’s month long Live In Theatre Festival at the Living Room on Agricola Street is its ability to bring us stories from around the province that we otherwise may not have the opportunity to see. One of the best examples of this so far at the Live In Festival is Gary Blackwood’s play Two Hours in a Madhouse With Nellie Bly, which played from October 4th to October 6th as part of the Live In after its run in New Glasgow this past summer.

Nellie Bly was a trail-blazing pioneer American journalist and feminist who gained international recognition in the late 1880s with two journalistic “stunts,” one in which she went undercover for New York World as a patient of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and one in which she traveled around the world in 72 days. One of the greatest feats of Blackwood’s play is dredging up this fascinating figure from relative historical obscurity and allowing her own words and the incredible events of her life to live and breathe and resonate ardently in the 21st Century.

Conceived as a lecture, presumably one on a touring circuit, in which Bly has been asked to recount her various exploits and centered around a large wardrobe filled with different costumes that become the characters Bly interacts with, the play has a innocence and unpolished charm that one might expect from a community playhouse. Yet, this ambiance suits the subject matter of the play perfectly, as it hearkens back to the tail-end of the Vaudeville circuit where public figures like Nellie Bly would have been entertaining small town audiences in makeshift theatres with very little pomp or pretense.

It is difficult to know who exactly to ascribe the wonderfully engaging dialogue of the play to, as Blackwell made it clear during a Talk Back following the performance that most comes directly from Bly’s own writings. She is beautifully literate, urban, witty and strong willed, with an obvious ferocity of spirit and penchant toward being competitive and proud. The other characters that emerge from the wardrobe are only seen in how they relate to Bly and are more important for the response they elicit in her than what they say in their own dialogue. Although there is one particularly heart wrenching character that Bly encounters in the Asylum, an older Irish lady who has fallen through the cracks of society and will be condemned to die a slow, cold and lonely death. If all the secondary characters could come as alive as this one the audience would be given a richer portrait of the society surrounding Bly as well as an intimate exploration of our protagonist herself. Although Blackwell gives much writing credit to research, he has condensed the events of Bly’s life, combining her tall tales with the struggles she encountered at the end of her life, to create an extremely compelling and engaging narrative arc that left me, often literally, on the edge of my seat.

Amanda Jefferson-Gillis makes a picture perfect Nellie Bly. She encapsulates perfectly the balance between being a late Edwardian woman and a First Wave Feminist. She also has this infectious exuberance of spirit that gives her the ability to hold an audience transfixed for two hours with very little “theatre magic” beyond her own talent to help her. There is a strong dose of Megan Follows in Jefferson-Gillis, so much so that I was thinking during the Intermission that someone needs to adapt the remaining Anne of Green Gables novels (Anne’s House of Dreams onward perhaps) into a play or two for her to star in next. She is certainly a performer that I would like to see much more from in Halifax in the future!

Two Hours in a Madhouse With Nellie Bly is one of those unexpected little gems that often come out of the theatre communities of smaller towns that keep reminding me that it is always important to provide venues for productions such as this one to be seen by a larger (and different) audience in the city. Thanks to DaPoPo for this one!

DaPoPo’s The Live In includes play readings, DaPoPo’s newest production, a return of The Drinking Game and workshops, all at the Living Room (2353 Agricola Street) through October 31, 2012. Check out this website for more information! 

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