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Mary Jane

"Suddenly it's quiet. It's like. . . everything I have been doing, that was very nice, but it wasn't real. This is real. And it's a relief, that's what it is, it's a relief to get back to it." — Mary Jane
mary jane
Emily Donahoe, left, and Miriam Silverman
Amy Herzog is looking for something. The playwright, whose latest, Mary Jane, is having its world premiere at Yale Rep, searches for the unreality behind the reality. In her justly-praised Belleville and 4000 Miles, she took what appeared to be familiar situations and twisted them.

She's done something similar in Mary Jane but, this time, the real and the ordinary overwhelm the mystical and we're threatened with a disease-of-the-week tale. While it isn't quite that, it's curiously earthbound.

The eponymous Mary Jane is the divorced mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Alex, born with a brain bleed and subject to seizures. In her Queens apartment, Mary Jane interacts with a visiting nurse, the nurse's niece and a friend's friend in similar circumstance of needing home help for an ill child.

The first act begins with the apartment house's superintendent, Ruthie, discussing Mary Jane's feelings while trying and failing to plunge out a sink stoppage. The suggestion of urban threat comes up when the super warns Mary Jane about removing window guards. Add the stopped sink and lots of talk about cancer to the possibility of lurking dangers.

More exposition and more conversations follow between Mary Jane and Sherry (the nurse), Amelia (the niece) and Brianne (the friend). At one point, light from a toy mysteriously casts "stars and a crescent moon on the ceiling and walls."

The second act takes place in a hospital where Alex has been taken, the result of an epileptic seizure. Here the actors become other people: Sherry is now Dr. Toros; Amelia is now Kay, a music therapist; Brianne is now Chaya, an Orthodox Jewish woman also with a sick child; and Ruthie is now Tenkei, a hospital chaplain who is also a Buddhist nun.

Now we're focused not as much on a sick child but a woman's bravery and endurance. Even more vital is her search for spiritual comfort and community.

"My community makes things easier, in certain ways," says Chaya. "Even if your husband died, or left — you wouldn't be so alone. But does my faith make it easier? I don't think having a sick child is less painful for me than for people without religion," to which Mary Jane replies, "Do you believe you're suffering for a reason?"

It's a personal, Book of Job question. Connecting to the first act's toy lights is the aura Mary Jane sees of "bright lights, and dark spots (that) starts small and then it blooms." What begins, then, as a work about a sick child and his mother becomes a metaphysical exploration of meaning.

As thoughtful as it is at times, the drama is not helped by Anne Kaufman's inactive, overly naturalistic, close-to-the-vest direction. Even the static way she places actors at a table is antithetical to what the play is attempting to convey about community.

Emily Donahoe is an empathetic Mary Jane, skillfully skipping over the evening's darker aspects, showing survival traits that transcend tragedy. Kathleen Chalfant is a tough super and a pragmatic Tenkei. Shona Tucker is warm as Sherry, efficient as Dr. Toros while Vella Lovell finds layers in both Amelia and Kat. As Brianne and Chaya, Miriam Silverman is powerful as women trying to rise above their emotions.

Amy Herzog writes with a seemingly domestic pen. But she notes the termites in the walls that threaten to destroy the structures we build for our protection. In this production of her Mary Jane, we sense the walls but not the termites

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Mary Jane by Amy Herzog Directed by Anne Kaufman
CAST: Emily Donahoe (Mary Jane), Kathleen Chalfant (Ruthie, Tenkei), Shona Tucker (Sherry, Dr. Toros), Miriam Silverman (Brianne, Chaya), Vella Lovell (Amerlia, Kat)
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green
Sound Design: Ian Scot
Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko
Technical Director: Harry Beauregard
Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos
Wig, Hair and Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova
Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel
Running Time: Act I – 50 minutes; Act II – 40 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission
Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven Conn.
From April 29-May 20, 2017
Reviewed May 5, 2017

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