As Amy Herzog’s gentle new play begins, Mary Jane is deep into idle chatter with the building’s superintendent Ruthie, who’s in the apartment to fix a clogged drain, when we hear a beep. It is, we eventually learn, the monitor for Alex, Mary Jane’s two-year-old son, who was born prematurely and wasn’t expected to live more than a few days. He now survives attached to elaborate medical equipment, unable to move or speak.
Responding to the beep, Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) goes off stage into the bedroom, we hear some sounds (Mary Jane fixing whatever’s wrong), the beeping stops, and she comes back into the living room to resume her conversation with her superintendent.
This is more or less Mary Jane’s everyday life, and it is more or less the approach throughout “Mary Jane” — a series of casual, seemingly random conversations, interrupted by emergencies of greater or lesser severity involving Alex, whom we never really see (glimpsing him just once sunk down in an elevated hospital bed.) His existence dominates Mary Jane’s day, and has changed her life. She’s had to abandon her schooling to be a teacher; her husband abandoned her because of Alex; Mary Jane struggles just to keep her low-level job that she needs for the health insurance.
“Mary Jane” requires patience – more patience than some theatergoers might be able to muster. Mary Jane slowly reveals more about her life, her child and her hardship as the play progresses, and we gradually come to understand just how much it takes for her to remain both diligent and hopeful; bone tired, yes, but far from bitter; nearly cheerful.
Herzog is well-known for the precision of her observations in such previous plays as “4,000 Miles” and “After The Revolution” (both of which I loved) and “Belleville,” (which I didn’t), and there is a special reason to trust the authenticity of her insights in “Mary Jane.” Herzog and her husband, director Sam Gold, are parents of a child born in 2012 with a debilitating muscle disease called nemaline myopathy
Herzog couldn’t have found a finer collaborator in director Anne Kauffman, who recently made her Broadway debut in the revival of Marvin’s Room, and has an unshowy talent for exerting a quiet, warm but firm grip on audience emotions in such plays as A Life , Marjorie Prime , The Nether. and Detroit.
There is also great skill on display in the five-member cast, all of them women, starting with Carrie Coon, who is known to television viewers for “Fargo” and and “The Leftovers,” and made an impressive Broadway debut as Honey in the 2012 revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She projects a pleasant, placid exterior that subtly suggests what’s roiling underneath. The four other actors each portray two characters, one in Mary Jane’s home, and the other (in the second half of the play) in the hospital. Liza Colon-Zayas is Sherrie, the home-visit nurse who is the closest thing Mary Jane now has to a friend; she is also Dr. Toros, who is bluntly informative – not unkind, but not a friend. Susan Pourfer is Brianne, a young mother with a similar son, whom Mary Jane overwhelms with advice; she also portrays Chaya, an Orthodox woman whose own baby shares a hospital room with Alex, and who is more blunt than Mary Jane in the frustration and upset that they share. “There’s so much worry, it’s going in a thousand directions all the time, all I can do is keep track of the things I’m worried about.” Danya Esperanza is Sherrie’s niece, who visits Mary Jane (her purpose in the play seems in part to show how cautious the outside world is towards a mother with a permanently ill child.) She is also the less than diligent music therapist in the hospital, who calls Mary Jane “mom,” generically.
Brenda Wehle portrays the first character we meet, Ruthie the super in Mary Jane’s apartment, and the last one, Tenkei, a new Buddhist nun in the hospital, and these two roles come the closest to suggesting an arc for this play, from struggling with the practical (the drain pipe) to struggling with spiritual questions, about life and love, sacrifice and survival. This is all unspoken – all, if you prefer, in my head — in between the lines of the plainest of conversations happening on stage. The nun and the mother spend much of their time trying to figure out whether Alex’s goldfish is male or female. But then Mary Jane opens up to the tall, older woman with the shaved head about what Alex is like (“He loves fish of course…he likes very cold things….”) – which is to say, though she doesn’t put it this way, Mary Jane opens up about what she loves about her son.
New York Theater Workshop
By Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Set design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Japhy Weiderman, sound design by Leah Gelpe
Cast: Carrie Coon as Mary Jane, Liza Colon-Zayas as Sherrie/Dr. Toros, Danya Esperanza as Amelia/Kat, Susan Pourfer as Brianne/Chaya, Brenda Wehle as Ruthie/Tenkei
Running time: 100 minutes
Mary Jane is scheduled to run through October 29,