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Taking the plunge

For years, she kept her dream of being an escape artist a secret. Now, she’s got nothing to hide.

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By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2011

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FRANKLIN — The six buckles are cinched, clasped. Her arms constrained, crossed at the chest. She takes a deep, deep breath — then plunges. Face down in the water, she splashes, twists, writhes, and thrashes like a harpooned shark, trying to get free. The straightjacket nudges forward an inch. Another inch. Another inch.

Then, a final yank and contortion and she’s out — bursting from the water with a gasp, holding the buckled, canvas-and-leather straightjacket aloft.

The time it took for this daring underwater escape? About 40 seconds.

When Donna Purnell tells people she’s tied up, she’s not making excuses — she means it literally. The Medway mother of three is a member of a very small global club: professional female escape artists.

“Everyone wants to try to help the damsel in distress,’’ said her husband, trainer, motivator, and chain-wrangler Bill Purnell, who often hears the alarmed outburst, “Oh my God, that’s your wife! Get her out of there!’’ during stunts. “But she’s fine doing it herself.’’

Better than fine. Less than a year and a half since her first public escape, the girlish and reserved Purnell, 49, has built up an audacious and often dangerous sideshow repertoire featuring her brash, fearless alter-ego “Alexanderia the Great.’’

“I decided to escape the mundane life,’’ said the laconic Purnell, who usually goes by “Alex.’’ Now she spends her time escaping from shackles, padlocks, chains, mailbags, and recycling barrels — almost always while submerged in water or in “airless’’ situations with her face swathed perilously in plastic wrap.

In the underwater “leap of faith,’’ she can break free of 55 pounds of weights and restraints — including medieval-looking shackles at her ankles and wrists, 20 feet of chain, and eight padlocks. She can wriggle out of that canvas-and-leather straightjacket with six buckles. And in her newest stunt, she can unbind her hands and pick the lock on a 3-foot-high by 2-foot-wide by 30-inch-long plexiglass cell filled with water before running out of air.

She does it all without goggles (that’s cheating, Purnell says), and usually, because she can only hold her breath for so long, she simply rips herself free of her bindings without using keys or picks, often leaving her hands a bruised and battered pastel purple.

“It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff,’’ noted Rory Raven, a “mentalist and mindbender’’ from Providence who met Purnell through New England’s small sideshow circuit. Never one to be impressed by escape acts (he found them too predictable), he saw her show and found it “compelling and nerve-racking.’’

“You’re watching this 50-something house mom struggle to get out of a tank five feet away from you,’’ he mused.

But how did she get there in the first place?

Purnell spent decades as a Harry Houdini hobbyist, a secret her husband knew but one that she kept from friends, relatives, even her children, as she worked as a teacher and day-care provider. (She’s now a manager at Work Out World in Bellingham).

“I had no idea until I was about 17,’’ explained her eldest daughter, Nicole, 19, and studying dance education at Bridgewater State University.

And when she found out?

“I was really nervous. It’s not easy to hear that your mom’s getting chained up and dumped in pools.’’

It started out a bit simpler than that. When they met as teenagers, Donna and Bill shared a fascination with magic. He admired Houdini in particular and recalled how he wanted to impress his then-girlfriend with some basic rope ties.

“What I didn’t expect was for her to say, ‘That’s cool, but I can do better,’ ’’ Bill said, chuckling.

Today, he’s the gregarious and talkative Penn to her quiet and subdued Teller, and they invoke the legendary Hungarian-born escape artist with the familiarity of an old friend, calling him “Harry.’’ Bill prepares Alex for stunts, stays nearby if she needs help, and assists with training, which includes free-diving courses, breath-holding trials (her record is 3 minutes, 51 seconds), and underwater weight lifting. For that, she sits at the bottom of a pool doing reps with 25- and 30-pound weights.

When she isn’t padlocked, Purnell is a typical mother, helping her teenagers with their homework and regularly attending their sports games.

They don’t always reciprocate. Nicole said her mother’s act is still hard for her to watch; she’s seen it only a few times. Her fears aren’t unfounded: Purnell has nearly drowned on more than one occasion. Even so, she’s energized by her mother’s literal plunge into her passion.

“She really inspired me to do what I want to do,’’ said Nicole, “and to not really think about what other people say about it.’’

Since her first public stunt in October 2009, Purnell has achieved relatively quick acclaim. Her YouTube site has had about 200,000 views from 84 countries, and she does a regular circuit of sideshows and performances, which she would like to broaden out to clubs, cruises — maybe even Las Vegas.

She already holds a world record — recognized by the online Universal Record Database — achieved on national TV. Last fall on “Fox & Friends,’’ she performed an “extreme’’ straightjacket escape (out of water) in the fastest time on record. What made it extreme? The addition of 50 feet of chain and 10 padlocks. Her time: 2 minutes, 37 seconds.

Purnell’s undoubtedly got the skills, not to mention the guts to endure a lot of pain, but part of her appeal, she acknowledges, is the novelty. She’s a woman; she’s middle-aged; she’s a mother.

She “really is an ordinary person doing these truly extraordinary feats,’’ said Tony Gangi of Beverly, a sideshow purveyor and author of “Carny Sideshows: Weird Wonders of the Midway.’’

With some people, you look at them and know instantly that they’re performers, he said. Audiences often expect a “young, body-builder type’’ doing escapes “behind a curtain and away from prying eyes.’’

But Alex lets the audience in. There are no curtains to conceal her tactics. She’s exposed — whether she succeeds or not.

To further differentiate herself, she takes Houdini’s well-known stunts, like the leap of faith, and doubles the weight, or ratchets up the tension of his straightjacket escape by doing it while submerged.

“I’ve used him as kind of my base, to see what I can do to move past him,’’ said Purnell, wearing a black, one-piece bathing suit, short wet hair smoothed against her head, face flushed, eyes squinting from chlorine after a full morning of pool training at the Adirondack Club in Franklin. “We think Harry would be proud,’’ her husband added as he unfurled a tangle of chains and padlocks. Then he shrugged and added with a smirk: “We’re also hoping he’d be a little jealous.’’

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

‘I was really nervous. It’s not easy to hear that your mom’s getting chained up and dumped in pools.’ Nicole Purnell, 19