I hate plays and films about people with incurable diseases. There is only one narrative trajectory they can possibly have. The protagonist has little agency and is often a victim. The messages of such productions is often maudlin or saccharine or a combination of the two. They are designed to make you cry etc. I say all of this just to demonstrate what Mary Jane had to work against with me as audience- member. That I not only liked it but thought it was an incredibly compelling piece of theatre indicates the achievement of the playwright, director, and actors. It is a great play and production. And, yes, it did make me cry (a little).
First, playwright Amy Herzog wisely focuses her attention not on the patient (a never-seen three-year-old child) but on his primary caregiver. the titular Mary Jane. Second, Herzog dramatizes the struggles Mary Jane has both concerning the care of the child but also issues surrounding that care (trying to maintain a job, navigating the bureaucracies of the medical establishment and the city). Finally, the playwright carefully deconstructs how this loving, smart, and competent woman is slowly overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead of her. She never whines nor laments. She keeps trying to maintain her resilience and, yes, her cheerful disposition, but that slowly breaks down (as her son moves from home care to the ICU).
In this, Herzog has found a gifted collaborator in director Anne Kauffman, who maintains a laser-like focus on the journey of Mary Jane. While we feel her travails throughout, she is never a victim. She always maintains some small agency.
And, of course, the play rests on the shoulders of its incredible cast. Carrie Coon, who was the best thing in the might Leftovers cast, invests her portrayal of Mary Jane with subtlety and nuance throughout. Exhausted but never defeated, she fully expresses the brutal struggles of her character and yet we never sense anything less than full love for her son. She is ably supported by an all-female ensemble. Liza Colon-Zayas embodies two medical professionals who are grounded and dedicated, supportive and realistic. The deep subtext of Colon-Zayas conversation with Coons in the hospital is streaked through with both hope and fatalism. Equally poignant is Susan Pourfar as another mother, Chaya (from the Orthodox Jewish community), who has a child with similar disabilities. It is a fascinating scene where Mary Jane discover what they share and what is distinct for each of them. Actresses for years on end will be employing this scene in their workshop classes. Finally, Brenda Wehle as a Buddhist nun shares the stage with Coons for the play’s elegiac conclusion. Herzog quietly but persistently has crafted a story of faith and inquiry, wondering aloud about our place in the world and the purpose behind our bonds to another. That she never telegraphs her inquiry but we realize slowly that this is what we as the audience are being asked to contemplate is a masterful turn of writing.
If it may be said that a work of art has a soul, then this is such a work. Mary Jane only has a few more performances. Catch it while you can.