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A CurtainUp Review
Mary Jane

"She's searching, like we all do at a certain point in our lives, and questioning how we are in the world, and how we function in the world, and what our relationship is to suffering."
— Director Anne Kauffman about Amy Herzog's the title character of Amy Herzog's play who she compares to a modern-day Job, quoted in a New York Magazine pre-opening feature.
Mary Jane
Liza Colon-Zayas & Carrie Coon (Photo: Joan Marcus).
Director Anne Kauffman hit the perennial nail on the head with the above quoted take on the titular Mary Jane of Amy Herzog's play. A co-production with Yale Repertory Theater, the play now in its New York run at New York Theater Workshop is indeed a modern Job-like tale.

As her husband could not, and apparently without other nearby and helpful family members, Mary Jane (Carrie Coon of Fargo and The Leftovers on screen and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on stage) has continued to lovingly and hopefully care for her severely handicapped son Alex. When we first meet her, Alex has survived countless seizures and other difficulties for two and a half years. Mary Jane is divorced, has put her hopes for a teaching career on hold and is working at a job that provides the needed medical support services and frequent emergency leaves to support and care for him.

Obviously there isn't a lot of light entertainment to be found here. Yet, thanks to Herzog's gift for listening to people who, as Mary Jane at one point observes "don't always know how to be" — not just Mary Jane but those with whom she interacts during the play's 90 intermissionless minutes — the performances of the entire ensemble as subtly directed by Kauffman, there are enough moments to allow some lightness and laughter into this grimly realistic play.

Unlike the hysterical Honey of Coon's memorable Honey in the 2012 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? her Mary Jane is amazingly calm, upbeat and still interested in other people. But this isn't a medical melodrama with a definitive ending.

Actually, Herzog takes us on a basically plotless trajectory covering some two months of Mary Jane's interaction with the never seen child and various other people — initially during a relatively calm period in her one-bedroom apartment in Queens, and during a scene changing ever more downbeat second part in the hospital where Alex is undergoing treatment after a grand mal seizure.

Her unwavering commitment to helping her child not only survive but bring as much joy as possible into that struggle definitely makes Mary Jane the play's heroic Job; and Coon though at times not projecting as clearly as she should, is enormously moving. However, it's Mary Jane's continuing overall human caring and curiosity and Herzog's dialogue for those interactions with the people she comes in contact with that make Mary Jane a touching group portrait despite its meandering plotlessness and the long pauses reminiscent of Annie Baker. Its more theatrical rewards are indebted to Laura Jellinek's deceptively simple scenic design and, most of all, from the supporting cast's artful and nimble double role playing.

Mary Jane's first one-on-one is with Ruthie (Brenda Wehle) her building's superintendent who lends her own sympathy and support by sharing the story of her sister's siege with cancer. Next is Sherry (Liza Colon-Zayas), regular and longest visiting nurse with whom she's developed a strong and very simpatico relationship. By helping her friend Briannd (Susan Pourfar) who has given birth to a similarly afflicted child to navigate the getting-help bureaucracy and in doing so seems to bolster her own hope that they, and their children, will survive.

It's when a enjoyable visit from Sherry's niece Amelia (Danaya Esperanza) is interrupted by a life threatening emergency that we see Mary Jane's having learned to hold things together. Young Amelia is completely discombobulated by the chaos of getting Alex to the hospital. when Mary Jane's responds to her "so sorry" with "what are you sorry for?" it fully brings home the incredible toughness required to live with such a tragedy.

Things take an even darker turn when the scene shifts to the hospital and everyone except Mary Jane morphs into their secondary roles: Sherry is a doctor, her niece a music therapist, the superintendent a Buddhist chaplain and friend Brianne again a mother of a sick child, but now an orthodox Jewish mother of seven.

To emphasize Mary Jane's seeking a more spiritual understanding in this section there's the meeting with the Buddhist nun/chaplain. Though this initially struck me as a bit too schematic, I was won over by Brenda Wehle's luminous transformation into that role. Ultimately, it's the scene between Mary Jane and that Hasidic woman that's the play's most effective one, both in terms of dramatizing how very different strangers can sometimes connect and help each other and to support Herzog's effort to bring some genuine humor to an essentially humorless story — a story that realistically substitutes another long pause instead of a more conclusive ending, at least for the current stage of Mary Jane and Alex's tragedy.

I think Herzog wrote this as a very personal rather than a political play. Still, the hospital personnel's generic "mom" references point to the impersonal aspects of our overly busy health care system. Yet, with Obamacare under siege by the current Trump administration's majority, it adds an all too timely note to Mary Jane. The health care people like Mary Jane have may not be perfect but without it, her battle would have been over before it began.

Previous plays by Amy Herzog reviewed at Curtainup:
After the Revolution
4000 Miles
Great God Pan

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Mary Jane by Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman.
Cast:Carrie Coon as Mary Jane, Liza Colon-Zayas as Sherrie/Dr. Toros, Danaya Esperanza as Amelia/Kat, Susan Pourfar as Brianne/Chaya, Brenda Wehle as Ruthie/Tenkei
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek
Costume design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting design by Japhy Weideman
Sound design by Leah Gelpe
Properties Kathy Fabian
Wig, Hair and Makeup by Dave Bova, J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 9/06/17; opening 9/25/17; closing 10/29/17
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, Sunday at 2pm and 7pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/24 press preview

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