“We don’t want you to suffer and die,” one of her granddaughters says to Mary Frances (Lois Smith), as she lies in bed. “We just want you to die.”
“Yeah,” agrees Mary Frances with a laugh. She is 90 years old, in ill health, and ready to go. “Peace for Mary Frances,” a play by Lily Thorne, chronicles the last few weeks of Mary’s life after she contacts a hospice, so that they can help her die at home with as little pain as possible, surrounded by her family.
There have been plenty of strong, moving plays about dying – “Wit,” for one – and several good recent dramas about care-giving , such as Mary Jane and Cost of Living. An interesting play might have been fashioned from the specific circumstances of reluctant/incompetent caregivers for a dying woman who doesn’t want any medical intervention to prolong her life. But “Peace for Mary Frances” is an awkward slog of a play that is full of wrong moves — including a little lighthearted Anti-Semitism at its start – and largely wastes the talents of its extraordinary cast.
The bulk of “Peace for Mary Frances” focuses on the bickering of Mary’s dysfunctional family. Her two daughters dislike each other intently – Franny (Johanna Day), an ex heroin addict now on methadone, and Alice (J. Smith-Cameron), an unemployed spendthrift, can’t be in the same room with one another without it turning ugly. Mary’s son Eddie (Paul Lazar), a lawyer, doesn’t do anything much to help; when he visits, he puts his feet up on Mary’s bed, eats a stinky lunch he’s brought with him, and reads the newspaper.
Alice’s daughters Helen (Heather Burns) and Rosie (Natalie Gold) seem to have escaped the repellent personalities of their elders — until, right before intermission, Helen inexplicably turns violent, attempting to strangle Fanny.
When the family isn’t rehashing old wounds or fighting over money in scenes that quickly turn tedious, a hospice nurse and psychologist visit to explain the procedures and philosophy behind hospice care in scenes that feel as if they’re reciting from a textbook.
Director Lila Neugebauer, a pro (The Wolves, Miles for Mary, Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo, etc.), does what she can with the material. There are a few watchable scenes, such as one between the two granddaughters comparing their lives, and a monologue by Lois Smith as Mary addressed to Mary’s dead husband revealing what a louse he was. There are also a few details that, under different circumstances, might be intriguing, such as that the family is descended from immigrants who escaped the Armenian genocide. But these moments don’t compensate for all that is obvious, irrelevant or annoying about “Peace for Mary Frances” from the very first line in the play. I reprint that line below from the script; judge for yourself whether it’s Anti-Semitic:
(reading the newspaper)
It’s gonna snow more.
Too bad Moshe next door doesn’t shovel the walk since you asked him to stop planting vegetables on our property.
Remember when they moved in and he asked me what our religion was and I said Orthodox and I let it hang like that, like Orthodox, and he smiled and then I said, Christians. I wish you had seen his face, Ma.
Then he started, slowly, but calculated-like, taking over our yard. Offered you fresh tomatoes and green beans – while he occupied our fertile lands. After he charmed you with the produce, he built that sunroom, out of brick and mortar, less than ten feet from our property line. That’s illegal. Our backyard is the Golan Heights of West Hartford, right?
When you die, I’m gonna sell this house to a family of Palestinians just to fuck with him.
Peace for Mary Frances
The New Group at Signature Center
Written by Lily Thorne
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey, Costume Design by Jessica Pabst, Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau and Sound Design by Daniel Kluger.
Cast: Heather Burns as Helen, Johanna Day as Franny, Natalie Gold as Rosie, Mia Katigbak as Bonnie, Paul Lazar as Eddie, Brian Miskell as Michael, Melle Powers as Clara, Lois Smith as Mary Frances and J. Smith-Cameron as Alice.
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.
Tickets: $20 to $100
Peace for Mary Frances is scheduled to run through June 17, 2018.