Mary’s Joy: A new play examines Puritans and a woman’s outrage

Writer and actor Jeanmarie Simpson.

Writer and actor Jeanmarie Simpson.

Mary's Joy art

By Kevin S. Giles

One of the enduring myths in American history is that we somehow serve
the greater public good by blending religion and government. To the
contrary, experience shows that imposing a restrictive moral code in the
guise of governing leads to ugly truths. So much for freedom of religion.
When a specific religion, or any religion at all, acquires the power to force
people of different beliefs to comply, what’s the predictable result?

Intolerance and persecution, as writer and actor Jeanmarie Simpson starkly
portrays in “Mary’s Joy,” her new stage play that reaches deep into a Quaker
woman’s spiritual pain.

Simpson, a Quaker herself, confronts Puritan America in the 1600s for what it was — a noxious merging of religious extremism with public policy.
Interior dialogue tells the story in this one-woman play. Simpson acts all
the parts, drawing us into a family crisis driven by Mary Dyer’s civil
disobedience of Puritan laws.

Mary Dyer was a real person, one of four Quakers known as “Boston Martyrs”
who went to the gallows for their beliefs. Simpson, a practiced and
disciplined playwright, quickly guides us away from any expectation that
Mary will resist confrontation with cranky Puritan leaders who
practiced a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Instead, she
beckons us into Mary’s tortured inner life where even the lure of family
can’t save her from a higher calling.

Mary, through her neighbor Anne Hutchinson, learned “salvation by grace,” a
kinder spiritual peace. Men and women were equals. God was infinitely good
and loving.

Early in her new American life, the English immigrant Mary loathed the cruel
ways of the Puritan leaders who ran Boston with an iron hand. She reeled at
seeing poor wretches in stocks, their backs laid open with a whip. Offenses
included even laughing on the Sabbath, and punishments for violating the
Puritan way would mean banishment, even death.

Mary gives birth to Joy, a hideously deformed child. The girl mercifully
dies on arrival, leaving Mary fearful that Puritan leaders will find out and
interpret Joy’s malformation as God’s punishment of a heretic.

They do, and what happens next reveals Simpson’s convictions that so
eloquently draw the Puritans out of their darkness. “Mary’s Joy” leaves us
hurting in a personal way for Mary and her estranged husband William and
their children, but beneath the emotional foundation it’s a study of free thought and freedom to worship vs. servitude and perpetual obedience.

Religious bias leaves a stain, often bloody, and through Mary’s eyes Simpson
leaves little doubt of the consequences.

Kevin S. Giles and Jeanmarie Simpson share a mutual interest in Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Simpson has portrayed Rankin on stage and film.