Nellie and the Women of Blackwell

Will this immersive play make you feel like a patient in a 19th century asylum?

By Andrew Andrews

Kate Szekely and Ashley Adelman star in Infinite Variety Productions' Nellie and the Women of Blackwell at Wildrence in the Lower East Side. Original photos from the company.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Cochran Seaman was dissatisfied with her era’s opinion of the usefulness—or rather, uselessness—of women, and set out to prove the world wrong as a stunt reporter under the pen name Nellie Bly.

After The New York World agreed to let her feign insanity to investigate conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, the collected articles were published as the book Ten Days in a Mad-House. Bly achieve lasting fame as a result, and the report led to reforms in the public mental health system.

In Nellie and the Women of Blackwell, about a dozen guests are asked to enter the asylum with Nellie and assist her on her journey, experiencing first-hand some of the abuses that Bly later exposed, and witnessing others in an immersive environment.

Nicole Orabona and Janessa Floyd each contribute multiple characters to the production.

Wildrence claims to be the city’s first venue designed exclusively for immersive theatre. For this production, the creatives have done a great job stretching their decorating budget to convey the sense of unfortunate people and places in an underfunded system.

The costumes seemed perfect for the period, and actor Kate Szekely bears a strong resemblance to photographs of Nellie Bly, making the portrayal of the character even more believable. Otherwise, the casting for the production gave me the impression that available actors were assigned to (sometimes multiple) roles instead of awarded them.

The acting was generally good and the cast made a lot of effort to engage the audience, although we were not, as a whole, what I would call “uninhibited.” As a result, I felt more like an observer than a participant.

The premise that all of those attending were simultaneously committed to the asylum when only Nellie had acted unstable was a little far-fetched, yet it’s hard to imagine an alternate point of departure that would have worked better.

My overall impression of this production was quite positive, but the experience just wasn’t as engrossing or enjoyable as I had hoped, despite the worthy effort by everyone involved.


Andrew Andrews attended Nellie and the Women of Blackwell at Wildrence in Manhattan on Saturday, February 1, 2020 @ 7:00pm to write this review.