Review: The Wonder by Eclectic Theatre Tells a 19th Century Story of Possession, When Mental Illness Was Treated by Leeches and Cold Water Cures

Two young women who believe their bodies and minds are inhabited by spirits or by souls of the dead are the featured characters in The Wonder, a new play being presented by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at the Edge Theatre. The Wonder is written by Maggie Lou Rader and directed by Gaby Labotka.

The fact-based story set in 19th century Watseka, Illinois, is the first reported occurrence of spiritual possession in the midwest; it’s the tragedy of a family whose teenaged daughter slips into a catatonic spirit life—and eventually dies. Mary Roth (played by Tina-Kim Nguyen) is a talented pianist but succumbs despite constant and concerned treatment by her parents and a Peoria doctor at a hospital referred to—of course—as an insane asylum. The treatments provided include bleeding by leeches and cutting, and the horrific “water cure.” 

The story is haunting and enough to make any parent keep watch on a child’s reading and perhaps misguided social media use. It’s a tragedy in spades because after years of trying to find a cure for their daughter’s condition, they are not able to keep her alive. But the drama lags in act two and could benefit by some judicious script work.

Mary’s parents, Ann (Jill Thiel) and Asa (Timothy Sullivan), are kind and considerate and do everything they can to help her recover from her “fits.” But medical science was limited 150 years ago. 

A second young woman exhibits similar but more violent characteristics. Lurancy “Rancy” Vennum (Isabella Maria Valdes) suffers epileptic-type seizures and eventually says her body is inhabited by spirits returned from the dead. Her mother Lurinda (Idalia Limon) cares for her lovingly but is not able to find any remedies to help.  The two Watseka families are linked when Asa Roth, who has now apparently turned himself into a spiritual expert, comes to visit to try to help Rancy. 

Timothy Sullivan and Isabella Maria Valdes. Photo by Lena Aubrey.

The story of The Wonder is performed on a creatively structured stage set designed by Daniel Houle, which features a scrim-like backdrop constructed of slender plastic rods set in diagonal patterns with a few Victorian-era  furnishings—including a piano. Lighting design is by Lena Aubrey and sound by Andrew Pond. Emily Bloomer is costume designer. Zach Osterman is the stage manager. 

Labotka’s direction is careful and avoids overdoing the “performances” of the two young women. Thiel as Mary’s mother is warm and sensitive. Sullivan as Asa turns in a bombastic performance, however, which could be improved by turning down the volume. As my plus-one observed, “…a hushed voice would have more properly communicated his mood; volume doesn’t always make words more meaningful.”

The story of the “Watseka wonder” has been produced in other forms, in short stories and on film and stage. Psychologists who analyzed the stories of Mary and Rancy in that era often questioned whether they were actually possessed or merely “suggestible.” (See “Spiritist Investigation” and “Critics” here.)

You can view a digital copy of the account of the investigation by the “spiritualist,” E. Winchester Stevens, titled The Watseka Wonderhere.

The Roff house in Watseka, located south of Kankakee near the Indiana border, has been restored and is occasionally open for “paranormal investigations” or for short-term rentals.

A 2009 documentary-style horror film The Possessed made use of interview material as well as the journals of E. Winchester Stevens. The film, released on DVD and screened on SyFy was written and directed by Christopher Scott Booth. Another play, Before I Wake, was a fictionalized version of the story by William Wesbrooks and was staged in New York in 1986. The Roffs were Wesbrooks’ great-great grandparents.

Rader’s play The Wonder should not be confused with the 2022 film, The Wonder, directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Florence Pugh. That plot, set in a conservative village in Ireland, is a similarly odd but unrelated story. The film follows a young girl who hasn’t eaten in months but remains miraculously alive and well. She attributes her health to “manna from heaven.” Pugh plays a nurse who is brought in to observe and report on the girl’s activities.

The Wonder by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre continues through May 13 at the Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway. Running time is two hours plus a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $30 for performances Thursday-Sunday.

For more information on this and other productions, see

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.