Just a few blocks away from Yale Repertory Theatre is Yale New Haven Hospital. If you look closely enough at the people walking through their atrium I bet you’ll see a few women who closely resemble Mary Jane, the titular character in Amy Herzog’s beautifully crafted and emotionally vibrant new play. You’ll recognize the weary expression, the unfussy, slept-in clothes, the phone constantly beeping from alarms or doctor’s voicemails. But you’ll also recognize that steely, sunny glint in her eye; the fervent, oddly-serene look that translates to “I’m his mother and, goddamnit, we’ll get through this again.”
What makes Herzog’s world premiere play so special is that it doesn’t put Mary Jane on a pedestal. She is not a saint or a martyr, she does not wax poetic about death like Prior Walter, she doesn’t go through a labyrinth of self-discovery and come out a changed person. Mary Jane is just an average lady who was dealt an unusually rough hand and chooses to respond with grace, humor and an easy-going resiliency. As expertly played by Emily Donahoe, Mary Jane is both the center of Herzog’s work and the only character who stays a constant in the dozen or so snapshots we get of her life.
The play begins two and a half years after Mary Jane gave birth to her son Alex three months premature. Miraculously he survived, but Alex escaped death without the ability to speak, to eat solid food, to hold his head up. He has a troubling history of seizures and cerebral hemorrhages. We wisely never catch a glimpse of Alex in Anne Kaufman’s gorgeous staging, but do see the artifacts of his disability strewn around Laura Jellinek’s hyper-realistic apartment set: an IV pole, components of his feeding tube, a specialized stroller than fits his oxygen tank.
We also meet the other people who populate Mary Jane’s life. There’s a kind, no nonsense nurse (Shona Tucker, pitch-perfect) who arrives one day with her visiting, college-aged niece (Vella Lovell, most known to me as Rebecca Bunch’s slacker neighbor in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”). Another mom of a disabled child (Miriam Silverman) comes to visit as does her crusty superintendent (Kathleen Chalfant). Mary Jane’s ex-husband isn’t in the picture – he fled, unable to deal with his son’s impairments – and the only other man in her life, Alex, is never seen. Coupled with the all-female team behind the scenes, “Mary Jane” subtly illuminates the role of caretaker so many women choose or are thrust into.
Each character gets a scene to play off Mary Jane and the result is a fluid portrait of her day-to-day life and the community of women who support her. Herzog takes her time, slowly unfurling Mary Jane’s story and giving these characters room to breathe, chat and open up. Here (and in her other works like “4,000 Miles”), Herzog’s biggest strength is penning realistic, messy dialogue that never feels stagey or self-conscious. Yet, in a two-hour work that has far more wandering dialogue then it does plot, there isn’t a wasted or sluggish moment. The cast, too, is uniformly terrific in interpreting her words and creating richly textured, likable characters in a short amount of time.
The tone does change in act two and we leave the comfortable, detailed world of Mary Jane’s apartment in favor of a harsher, more barren landscape. I’ll leave details out, but must dutifully mention that the scene change is beautifully choreographed, smartly carried out by costumed stage hands and lit expertly by Elizabeth Green. It is also worth mentioning that, except for Ms. Donahoe, all the other actresses play different characters. I would love to go on here – discuss the brilliant way Kaufman uses mise-en-scene to differentiate the two locations, applaud Donahoe, Chalfant and Silverman’s stellar, sensitive performances and explore some of the deeper themes Herzog is wrestling with – but the surprises of the second act are better left unspoiled.
If one walks away from “Mary Jane” a little emotionally unsatisfied I can perhaps understand. Herzog doesn’t really adhere to a typical structure and so there is no big climax, no outbursts or scenery-chewing. While she is playing with complex ideas and real, devastating emotions, there is not a moment of melodrama in Herzog’s restrained and conversational prose. I will admit that the ending felt a touch too abrupt, leaving the play with an oddly unfinished quality.
But, to me, that is part of “Mary Jane’s” charm. This story could have been told with Lett’s fiery intensity or Mamet’s vulgarity or Ruhl’s whimsy, but Herzog cuts right to who Mary Jane is with a script that merely asks us to spend a few brief moments with her and understand that her struggle is both deeply personal and universally relatable. From the mother of a disabled son to an unsure college student to a newly-robed Buddhist monk, no one is immune to the curveballs, both horrific and hilarious, life throws at you. To escape with minimal damage there’s really only one place to start: we must come together – parent to child, friend to friend, doctor to patient, artist to audience member – and begin a conversation.
“Mary Jane” runs through May 20 at The Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, CT. For more information, visit yalerep.org. Photo: Joan Marcus
Noah is a writer, video producer, actor and musician from Guilford, CT. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Noah has been involved with over 20 productions both on stage and off. Favorite roles include Barfee in “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Chas in “Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” and Dr. Chasuble in “Ernest In Love.”