“Six Actresses in Search of a Character”
One reason there’s such a large cast—18, count ‘em—in Mary Page Marlowe, Tracy Letts’s absorbing new drama at Off Broadway’s Second Stage (after premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf), is that six of them play a single role, the eponymous Mary Page Marlowe, over the course of 11 non-chronologically arranged scenes covering seven decades.
|Grace Gummer, Mia Sinclair Jenness. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
|Audrey Corsa, Emma Geer. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
For all the exceptional attention her character receives, Mary Page is, on the surface, as she tells a shrink, “unexceptional.” On its surface, her bio bears this out while also suggesting that even the most externally benign existence is a roller coaster when looked at from the long view.
A chronological rearrangement of the moments in Mary Page's life covered by the play would show her as a 10-month old crying in her crib during the doomed marriage of her mother, Roberta (Grace Gummer), and dad, Ed Marlowe (Nick Dillenburg), a philandering, boozing World War II vet; seeking, at 12, her divorced mother’s approval of her singing and getting some disappointing news in return; reading Taro cards with college friends Lorna (Tess Frazer) and Connie (Audrey Corsa), at 19, predicting her presumably predetermined future, and then confessing she’s turned down a marriage proposal.
|Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust, Susan Parfour. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
At 27, Mary Page, now a CPA, commits adultery with her boss (Gary Wilmes); at 36, she seeks help from a shrink (Marcia DeBonis), expressing a lack of agency in conducting her life; at 40, recently divorced, she tells her placid 12-year-old son, Louis (Ryan Foust), and distraught 15-year-old daughter Wendy (Kayli Carter), fathered by husband number one, that they must move from Dayton, Ohio, to Kentucky; and at 44, she hits the bottle while discussing, with her now 20-year-old daughter, the troubled fate of her druggy,16-year-old son.
|Gary Wilmes, Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Then, at 50, black and blue, she quarrels violently with hubby number three, Ray (David Aaron Baker), after a DUI accident promises to send her to prison; at 59, she chats pleasantly with Ben (Elliot Villar), a dry cleaning clerk, about a quilt; at 63, she has trouble understanding the DVR instructions of her agreeable third spouse, Andy (Brian Kerwin); and, at 69, the very ill Mary Page is hooked up to medical equipment by a friendly nurse (Maria Elena Ramirez).
|Susan Parfour. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Letts’s purpose is implied in a Joan Didion quote included in his script:
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
|Marcia DiBonis, Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
As organized by Letts (August: Osage County)—who, with Sam Shepard’s death, is surely America’s foremost actor-playwright—these biographical elements, presented out-of-sequence, jumping from past to future and back again, put the onus on the audience to fill in the blanks relating one to the other. As Letts’s careful stagecraft and convincingly natural dialogue, gracefully abetted by the imaginative, sensitive direction of the sizzling hot Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves), gradually pull things into focus, the connection between the scenes and the varying time periods becomes clearer. We thereby witness how a human personality evolves over time, never standing in one place, but also never abandoning what it once was.
|Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Letts's process can be tricky and not all his connections instantly strike a bell; overall, though, the challenge is worth the payoff as we get to know the various women who comprise Mary Page Marlowe, the choices she’s made in her fight for self-worth, the skins she’s shed, and something of what she’s learned on the path from cradle to grave.
|Kellie Overbey, David Scott Baker Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The actresses playing Mary Page resemble each other only in the vaguest ways—they’re white and brunette, with frequent changes of hairstyle to accord with period styles. Laura Jellenik’s set is a neutral, two-layer background on which generic, period-indefinite furnishings slide on and off to establish locales. Audiences unprepared for these devices may take a while before they grasp Letts’s premise.
|Blair Brown, Brian Kerwin. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
But when the final moments arrive and all the Mary Page Marlowes appear together in a marvelously lit (by Tyler Nicoleau) tableau, everything coheres in a striking image confirming the validity of Tracy Letts’s vision.
Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through August 12