When Alex was born to the titled character in Amy Herzog’s new play, Mary Jane currently playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, her life changed direction. “On hold for a minute”, is what Mary Jane, exquisitely portrayed by Carrie Coon (Broadway’s Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) says of her life and her goals. The father of Alex, only spoken about now, isn’t able to handle the stress of what Alex’s birth has brought home, and he flies the coop. Mary Jane, so full of goodness and fortitude, doesn’t hold any anger or frustration against him. She hopes he finds peace, is basically what she says. And we hope the same for her in a way, although what that means to Mary Jane is a lot more complicated than what it means for her former husband. Mary Jane’s peace, sadly will most likely only come in twinned in tragedy.
Because Mary Jane’s child, Alex, was born prematurely with a host of problems that will not just go away. Alex, as we slowly discover, will never get better, only worse. The details are teased out to us through some of the most elegantly written intimate and everyday conversations Mary Jane has with her stunningly sincere and deadpan building super, played beautifully by Brenda Wehle (Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…), Alex’s home-care nurse, Sherry, steadfastly and intuitively portrayed by Liza Colón-Zayas (2ST’s Between Riverside and Crazy) who embodies the frame of a health care worker, Sherry’s niece, Amelia, an impressive Danaya Esperanza (NYTW’s Othello), and the beautifully nuanced Susan Pourfar (Barrow Street’s Tribes), as a similarly challenged new mother, Brianne, who has come for clear and helpful guidance from the constantly giving and sturdy mother, Mary Jane. We never do see Alex close up, because what Herzog, and the wonderfully calculating director, Anne Kauffman have done here is to not give this story over to Alex. Instead, they have channeled their focus onto a mother trying with all her might and energy to stay connected to the feeling of love she has for her son. She won’t allow herself to fall into a state of despair or anger, but is constantly in a positive and forward motion, focusing her surprising energy into upbeat chatter and personal connection. Worrying more about the garden of Alex’s nurse, then the dark clouds that will approach one day or another.
And then it happens, the thing that we were consciously, or maybe unconsciously waiting for. That lump of anticipation and dread in our throat slowly builds and Mary Jane refuses that lump to be ignored. We know that eventually some sort of alarm or shift will happen, and we in no way will be able to remain in that cozy one bedroom apartment in Queens for the entirety of this stunningly complex yet simple play. The shift comes, alarmingly, with all the tension expected. And because of the pure transformational magic of designer Laura Jellinek (PH’s A Life – not surprisingly), we are lifted away from the perfectly carved out home of Mary Jane, where she sleeps on the pull-out couch so the bedroom could become a make-shift hospital room for Alex. With sharpness and precision, Mary Jane swings into the next chapter of Alex and Mary Jane’s battle. The perfectly crafted and designed lighting by Japhy Weldeman (Broadway’s Old Times, The Visit), costumes by Emily Rebholz (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), and sound design by Leah Gelpe (LCT3’s The Harvest), only emphasis the dramatic turn into the second half of this story, taking us down a similarly centered but slightly different anxiety-fueled road; one that is heightened by the sterility of the space and light. Dreading the end but bracing ourselves as we make the journey, we join Mary Jane, as she searches within herself and others for some understanding and structure, be it through religion, faith, or just medical understanding. With her are the same cast of stellar actors, although creating entirely new characters, all brilliantly constructed to help make her see the future with open eyes and a clearer mind.
It’s a beautiful crafted construction of a mother coping with the daily onslaught that sickness of one’s child can bring. It’s clear the playwright understands this topic from a deep emotional and raw place, that causes the anguish to echo throughout the theatre. We give our heart over to Mary Jane, completely without question. The ending is complex, surprising, yet authentic, and we embrace a sense of clarity that comes from the unclear connection to peace and understanding. For the light at the end of a long tunnel, feels like pain, although it is also relief and some sort of peace.