I rarely review a play this far into its run, but Mary Jane, whose time at New York Theatre Workshop is extended, deserves recognition and audience. Playwright Amy Herzog has a child born in 2012 with severe muscle disease and was, according to the program, “interested in looking at the reality of a woman taking care of a sick child by herself – the extreme amount of responsibility and total immersion in a seemingly foreign world.” (This piece was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre.)
Subject matter may be off-putting to many, especially parents, (I’m not a mother), yet the play is unexpectedly life affirming. It speaks to the power of unconditional love without qualifying romanticism. In life threatening situations, people can exert enormous strength or demonstrate extreme endurance. Herzog’s heroine seems to sustain that kind of state. She gets on with a kind of inadvertent/casual nobility accessible to, but rarely tapped by humanity.
Brenda Wehle; Danaya Esperanza
Mary Jane (Carrie Coon – wonderful as well in Broadway’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?) is the thirty-something-year-old mother of Alex, born 25 weeks into gestation with numerous life threatening conditions requiring round the clock nursing. Despite negative medical prognosis, her son (conjured by the sounds of monitoring devices) is now 2 ½. An office job allows some flexibility and gives her insurance coverage. Are you still with me?
Organized and hyper-knowledgeable while surprisingly calm and upbeat, she’s acclimated to transporting Alex in an adaptive stroller, adjusting necessary apparatus (when the beep sounds, she freezes like an animal in gun sight), dealing with shifting caregivers (one who sleeps on the job is let off both for her rationalized stress and that of her employer should a replacement need to be found), and erratic sleep. Mary Jane speaks of her little boy almost as if he were “normal.” She knows what will please him and is sure, favoring expression and gestures, despite silence, that he understands what’s going on around him. Pity is not provoked.
This is a mother who rolls with the punches. A call from the neurologist comes in while she’s giving advice to another mother of a debilitated child. Mary Jane humorously gestures a hanging noose while hearing that Alex has had several small seizures and must go back to the hospital. Her tone of voice is open and relaxed. “One thing you learn is you can’t get worked up over every bit of bad news. Sometimes they’re wrong,” she advises Brianne (Susan Pourfar) who breaks down.
Carrie Coon, Susan Pourfar
At her apartment, we also observe easygoing interaction with pessimistic Super, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), who wonders whether Mary Jane has an outlet for tension (there are, admittedly, sporadic migraines), vigilant home care nurse, Sherry (Liza Colon-Zayas), with whom she (also) discusses gardening and Sherry’s sympathetic visiting niece, Amelia (Danaya Esperanza), whose hospice experience facilitates lack of overreaction. The college student’s face as Mary Jane natters on matter-of-factly about early birth, her boyfriend’s desertion, and Alex’s brain bleed is pitch perfect.
Later, at the hospital, Mary Jane meets thoughtful Doctor Toros (Zayas), Chaya, (Pourfar) a Hasidic mother of seven whose daughter shares Alex’s room – this includes a droll exchange about breast feeding and serious inquiry as to whether the latter’s faith makes things easier – and Tenkei (Wehle), the hospital Chaplain in rotation, a freshly-minted Buddhist nun as full of questions as the abiding mother. (Alex’s unmet-as-yet fish becomes another amusing subject tangent.) Character transformations are superb.
That these conversations are often as humorous as they are occasionally thought-provoking speaks to the heroine’s distance from debilitating emotion (we literally see only glimpses), her be-here-now outlook, and Herzog’s extraordinary, unpreachy writing. Mary Jane’s demeanor is neither unnatural or pathetic, the scenario never aggrandized.
This is a helluva play.
Acting is terrific across the board with the remarkable Carrie Coon leading a pack of versatile, focused, talented women.
Director Anne Kaufman creates on-stage, real-time honesty. Thespians playing multiple roles do so with laudable specificity. Time to listen, feel, consider, and even fugue-out is allowed with skilled watchfulness.
Set Designer Laura Jellinek offers a manifestly ugly apartment in ways that have nothing to do with the character’s limited budget. I have no idea whether this was purposeful. The morph from home to jarringly authentic hospital is fluid and adroit.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Liza Colon-Zayas, Carrie Coon
Mary Jane by Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Through October 29, 2017