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Mary Jane

Theatre Review by David Hurst - September 25, 2017


Carrie Coons and Sarah Pourfar
Photo by Joan Marcus

Mary Jane, a beautiful new play written by Amy Herzog and directed with naturalism by Anne Kauffman (A Life) opening tonight at New York Theatre Workshop, will only burnish Herzog's stature as a writer of subtle introspection and uncanny insight. Following her previous award-winning works, After the Revolution, The Great God Pan, 4000 Miles and Belleville, Herzog's latest offering is the exploration of a single mother, Mary Jane, taking care of her severely debilitated and chronically ill little boy Alex. (Like Belleville, Mary Jane began life at Yale Rep, both directed by Kauffman. It's also worth noting this play was written and directed by women, designed by women and features the talents of exclusively women in the cast.) As embodied by the luminous actress Carrie Coon (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Fargo and The Leftovers), we watch Mary Jane struggle with the overwhelming day-to-day responsibility of caring for a dying child who requires round-the-clock care, despite having the help and support of various other women in her orbit.

For anyone who's been a primary caregiver to a family member or loved one with a long-term illness like cancer or AIDS, the day-to-day medical and emotional decline dramatized by Herzog may prove agonizing. But Herzog has miraculously crafted a piece that is brimming with humor and warmth despite its grim subject matter. Mary Jane's building superintendent, Ruthie, played by a no-nonsense Brenda Wehle (Talking Heads and The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide . . .), is a stalwart and supportive presence, dispensing advice with the same deadpan common sense she uses to unclog a drain. The wonderful Susan Pourfar (Tribes and Swimming in the Shallows) portrays a mother, Brianne, who has turned to Mary Jane for advice now that she must care for a chronically ill child of her own. As Mary Jane calmly tells Brianne all the things she'll need and all the services she'll want to request, the chilling detachment of a woman struggling to keep her sanity isn't lost on the audience. Additionally, the terrific Liza Colon-Zayas (Between Riverside and Crazy and Our Lady of 121st Street) is a day-nurse, Sherry, who's been assisting with Alex's care for over a year and is clearly invested in his wellbeing as well as Mary Jane's ability to cope. Sherry's niece Amelia, nicely drawn by Danaya Esperanza (Othello), pays a visit and helps out in a crisis as Alex's temperature spikes and he has a seizure that sends him to the hospital.

In the second half of the 95-minute piece the action shifts to the hospital in a neat change of scene accomplished by Scenic Designer Laura Jellinek. The dexterous cast assumes secondary roles with fluid ease as Alex's condition and prognosis worsen. Colon-Zayas becomes Dr. Toros, a pediatric intensivist who's gently trying to manage Mary Jane's expectations for her son, recognizing she's dealing with a mother who's grasping at her accumulated medical knowledge to keep hope alive. Esperanza provides a compassionate turn as a music therapist whose song's healing power is aimed more at Mary Jane than it is at Alex. And Pourfar portrays another mother who bonds with Mary Jane over their sick children, this time a Hasidic Jew named Chaya. In a beautifully understated performance that manages to find the fine line between heartbreak and hilarity, Pourfar's delivery of Herzog's dialogue is perfection. Finally, a luminous Wehle plays Tenkei, a Buddhist nun on the hospital's ministry staff who offers comfort and conversation to Mary Jane while Alex is taken for surgery whose outcome seems preordained. Their easy give and take, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, is the essence of what Herzog is striving for in Mary Jane – a moving play about everyday ‘life' you'll think about long after you leave the theater. You'll count yourself lucky that ‘life' isn't yours.


Mary Jane
Through October 29
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nytw.org


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