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A CurtainUp Review
Peace for Mary Frances

You did this for dad. Let me do it for you. — Alice, Mary Frances's middle daughter

. . .You'll never have to do that for me. What a nightmare. That's not my plan. — Mary Frances
Peace for Mary  Frances
Lois Smith and J. Smith Cameron
Mary Frances, the 90-year-old matriarch of Lily Thorne's well acted and staged but dramatically flawed play, tells her daughter Alice that she doesn't want to put her through her own nightmarish year at her dying husband's bedside. But terminally ill as she is with lung cancer she does need her. What she really doesn't want is for Alice to provide that care out of duty and for pay.

Happily, Lois Smith, herself just three years younger than Mary Frances, is still well enough to make any play she's in worth seeing. J. Smith-Cameron as Alice and Johanna Day as her sister Fanny are convincingly at war with each other and their respective inner demons. Heather Burns and Natalie Gold, who add another dimension to this dysfunctional family, are also excellent as Alice's daughters Helen and Rosie. Paul Lazar as Eddie, their mostly absent and self-absorbed brother, rounds out this dysfunctional family in crisis. (For most playwrights, only dysfunctional families seem to be the only kind worth writing about).

But even with these fine actors, the visually attractive stagecraft and Lila Neugebauer in the director's chair, there's no denying that this is a painful, insufficiently engaging and overly long play. The New Group is to be admired for supporting a new playwright, However, it's one thing to encourage playwrights, but another to do so before that playwright seems ready— as is the case with Lily Thorne who's a seasoned documentary film producer but still finishing her MFA in playwrighting at Brooklyn College.

It's hard to resist comparing Ms. Thorne's play to Edward Albee's Three Tall Women which is currently receiving a justifiably lauded revival (my review). The central character here is an even older woman whose death before the play's end will surprise no one. Her insistence that she's only 92, not 93, is just one example of Albee's wry humor.

While Peace For Mary Frances does come with its own amusing moments, they are overshadowed by the gloomy details pertaining to how Mary Frances is helped to reach that sought for peace with minimal pain. Though death hovers over both Thorne's and Albee's characters, "A" is felled quickly by a stroke since her creator's aim is not to focus on the way she dies, but the reflections each stage of her life prompts.

To be sure, Mary Frances too has plenty of the good and bad events of her long life to reflect upon, and neither her lung cancer or the pain from shingles deter her from trying to control this last stage of her life. But Ms. Thorne has also populated her play with three characters from the care giving hospice community. And these characters' frequent presence seem to make this a mix of family drama and documentary (shades of he playwright's experience in the documentary genre).

The result is that we learn a lot about how these hospice folks work with families facing this traumatic situation, but miss a lot of details about Mary Frances's life and what caused her children to be so messed up and estranged from her and each other. And messed up they certainly are. The family's Armenian roots are touched on but without any real depth or relevancy. We never learn how the American born Mary Frances met her husband, or how he made enough money to leave her a millionaire. By the time the intermission rolled around, I felt little sympathy for any of these characters— also somewhat guilty because I found myself wishing that Mary Frances would die already.

Ultimately the play does leave the viewer with a smidgen of hope that the pattern of dysfunction may be broken by the third generation— Alice's daughters. Helen and Rosie are the play's most sympathetic characters, as exemplified by one scene in which they discuss their fond memories of their Nonny (Mary Frances) and Poppy. Helen, a successful television actress who's supported her mother financially for years, is less successful in her personal life and feels she'll die all alone. Rosie's "I'm your family" is reassuring but not enough. As she explains "I mean, you get to go home to your husband and your kids. This {Nonny and Poppy's house} is the only place that's home to me. And it's turning into a m pit of hell. To which Rosie, not without reason, "Maybe it's always been a fiery pit of hell."

Rosie does agree with her sister that she too found the grandparents' home a happy place. Wouldn't it be nice if the wish she comes up with could come true: "If only we were one person, we'd be perfect. A beautiful, successful actor on her own TV show with a good husband and two children." This prompted my own own reverie about this play: Wouldn't it be nice if Lily Thorne had eased up on all the business with the hospice staff and given us more scenes like this.

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Peace for Mary Frances by Lily Thorne
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Cast: Lois Smith (Mary Frances), Heather Burns (Helen), Johanna Day (Fanny), Natalie Gold (Rosie), Mia Katigbak (Bonnie), Paul Lazar (Eddie), Brian Miskell (Michael), Melle Powers (Clara) and J. Smith-Cameron (Alice)
Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey
Costume Design by Jessica Pabst. Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Music and Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, includes 1 intermission
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
From 5/08/18; opening 5/23/18; closing 6/17/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/19/18 press preview

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