Wednesday, October 4, 2017

79 (2017-2018): Review: MARY JANE (seen October 3, 2017)

"Mothers' Play"

The titular heroine of Amy Herzog’s affecting play Mary Jane—which premiered at the Yale Rep and is now at the New York Theatre Workshop—reminds us that ordinary people can be saints and that religion has nothing to do with it. Maybe, like me, you know someone like Mary Jane (Carrie Coon), the young mother (divorced, in her case) of a severely disabled child, Alex, who must balance the demands of work with taking care of his extensive needs. (Born prematurely, Alex has cerebral palsy. Herzog, married to director Sam Gold, is the mother of a little girl with the muscular disorder nemaline myothapy.)

Mary Jane’s the type of woman whose incredible love for her severely handicapped kid makes us wonder how she does it. How can she maintain, at least, on the surface, the impression that she’s in control of her emotions, even projecting a patina of optimism and humor within the whirlwind of operations, medications, alarm beepers, oxygen tanks, tubes, and complications related to health care services? 
Brenda Wehle. Photo: Joan Marcus.
And faced, as Mary Jane is, with a toddler as physically and neurologically impaired as is Alex, how can she treat him as if he were normal, convinced he’s in there somewhere, not only listening to her but comprehending although unable to communicate on his own? The amazing thing is that Mary Jane, exceptional as she is, is not unusual; she’s the avatar of women everywhere whose maternal love gives them the resilience and fortitude to handle problems that would probably crush lesser mortals.

Carrie Coons, Susan Pourfar. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Herzog’s play is in two essentially plotless, intermissionless parts running an hour and 35 minutes. In the first, we gradually learn the details of Mary Jane’s situation by observing her in her one-bedroom Queens apartment, chatting with her—perhaps a bit-too-wise—female super, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), there to unclog a stuffed-up sink. We then see her interactions with Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas), a super-devoted visiting nurse; another disabled kid’s mother, Brianne (Susan Pourfar), to whom the always giving Mary Jane offers helpful, practical advice; and Sherry’s sweet, college-student niece, Amelia (Danaya Esperanza), 22, visiting from Raleigh, who happens to be present when Alex has a grand mal seizure.

In the second part, after an eye-catching but distracting scene change, we’re in the hospital where all the supporting actors from part one reappear in new guises. Here, as the unseen Alex lies in the ICU bed placed up center, Mary Jane confers with Alex’s sympathetic but realistic physician, Dr. Toros (Colón-Zayas); shares experiences with another disabled kid’s mother, Chaya (Pourfas), a Hasidic woman with seven children; is joined by Kat (Esperanza), the hospital’s music therapist, who sings for Alex despite it not being on her schedule; and an American woman, an Episcopalian-turned-Buddhist nun, Tenkei (Wehle), visiting to offer spiritual consolation as Alex is operated on.

The all-female, all-angels dramatis personae obviously has a feminist slant but that doesn’t prevent the play from being an engagingly moving portrait of a particular mother’s travails. Herzog’s generally naturalistic dramaturgy sometimes seeps into theatrical contrivance, like the well-acted but unconvincing Buddhist-nun scene, and the lyrically indeterminate conclusion, but it remains consistently involving and occasionally eye-moistening.
Liza  Colon-Zays, Carrie Coon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Under Anne Kauffman’s sensitive direction, the acting, aside from a few, tiny, line-crossing moments, is thankfully restrained and fully believable. Carrie Coon, so impressive a few seasons back as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, again shows why she’s a rising star, bringing charm, strength, courage, and wit to Mary Jane.
Lize Colon-Zayas, Carrie Coon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Each supporting actor is well cast, but the double-casting tends to draw undue attention to the play’s artificiality, pulling focus from its subject matter. This is less apparent for the roles of Kat, Chaya, and Tenkei, where the physical differences between the actors and their earlier roles are distinct enough not to matter much. However, having Sherry, the nurse, and Dr. Toros played by the same actress just before and after the big scene change, and with insufficient alteration of looks and manner, is momentarily confusing. It makes us more aware than we need be of the other actors’ transformations.

Laura Jellinek’s set, well-lit by Japhy Weideman, is also problematic. On the one hand, it’s good to see a living room set with its couch placed, not in the room’s center, but against a wall, as in most people’s living rooms; on the other, one wonders if the Mary Jane that Herzog has written and Coon embodies would decorate her home in such a garish aqua hue and with the kind of mundane decorative touches we see in it.

The dramatic scene shift, when the ceiling rises and the apartment’s units revolve to reveal a hospital interior, only serves to heighten the play’s unreality when it should, instead, do the opposite; surely, a simpler, less ostentatious concept could have been devised.

Making it even worse is the entry, in the midst of this realistic drama, of a crew of stage hands, dressed in black and wearing headphones, to carry out not only the big shift but a smaller, totally unnecessary one, later on. It never fails to surprise me that so many of today’s talented designers and directors still can’t figure out a way to hide or ameliorate such illusion-busting scene shifts.

I suspect my cavils will be of little interest to most audiences at Mary Jane, which manages to survive them with its tender, gently comical depiction of one saintly mother’s experiences.


New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through October 29