There are six definitive and definitely talented actresses playing Tracy Letts’ title character, Mary Page Marlowe. Seven if you want to include the baby doll that cries softly trying to seek and receive comfort in the arms of her distracted father, handsomely and clearly played by Nick Dillenburg (Off-Broadway’s Teenage Dick). (Interesting footnote: when Mary Page Marlowe premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in April 2016, the infant Mary was played by three actual babies, but was switched to a doll after audience members complained they were too distracted and nervous by the real life infant.) Luckily and typically, I had no idea going in to the Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater that the non-sequenced play was structured in such a manner, finding myself happily struggling to find my footing after the first of eleven scenes concluded. The opening, starring Susan Pourfar (NYTW’s Mary Jane) as Mary Page Marlowe (MPM, 40 & 44) delicately, and most authentically shows a mother breaking the news of divorce to her two children, played most compellingly by Kayli Carter (West End/St Ann’s Nice Fish) and Ryan Foust (Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). After that, we are, click by click, thrown around like a time traveling hot-potato from a scene of personal impact and importance to another, decades apart and each one starring a strongly constructed Mary Page Marlowe. This woman is masterfully assisted by a string of connected characters, each and everyone playing a role in molding and sewing together the quilt that will become the finished product at the sweet and stable age of sixty-nine. Mary Page’s mother, played steely but the phenomenally talented Grace Gummer (Broadway’s Arcadia) adds a strong unique layer of hardness to the young twelve year-old MPM, played by the sweet Mia Sinclair Jenness (Broadway’s Matilda) laying the ground work, almost too casually, of what kind of woman this Mary will become. “This is not a tragedy” Pourfar’s MPM says to her children so many years later, much like the words she probably needs to tell her numerous younger (and older) selves. We hopscotch our way, back and forth, over almost seventy years, comforting her lost and confused soul with the discrepancy of what should have or could have been with what it actually became. But much like MPM’s life, the end result is neither totally satifying, nor is it disappointing, as the cards can’t predict fulfillment, success or failure, just pathways forward.
As the clever tarot cards are dealt to a young nineteen year old Mary Page, portrayed precisely by the glorious Emma Geer (Mint’s Hindle Wakes), they strongly suggest an unknown and thrilling future already laid out for her in one of the more intoxicating moments of this 90 minute play. The Queen of Cups is overflowing with hope, dreams, and possibilities, but as always, there is another, more abstract vision, the death card, suggesting opposing forces of prophesied destiny, both good and bad. This young Mary Page Marlowe, finds comfort from the unknowingness that lays ahead, cozied up together with her best friends during a teenage sleep-over. They are played by the wonderfully engaging pair of actresses, Audrey Corsa (Arin Arbus’ Twelfth Night) and Tess Frazer (This Property is Condemned), solidifying a scenario where ideas of “I don’t want to marry” and the subsequent three marriages that we become privy to, with the last husband, and the favored one, Andy, played beautifully by the sweet Brain Kerwin (Broadway’s August: Osage County), suggest a stitching of a different thread. Costumed to period perfection by Kaye Voyce (Signature’s At Home at the Zoo), these different clad Mary Pages remind us how our youthful desires vanish, restructuring into a series of surprising attachments that are impossible to foresee staring out at us from those tarot cards dealt.
Those cards try to tell us about a life played out in scenes of engagement, with pieces of the puzzle adding and fitting together in ways that might be pre-ordained or just plain random and reactionary. It all depends on how you want to see it. One of the most powerful being the tightly controlled Kellie Overbey (Broadway’s The Coast of Utopia) as MPM, 50, losing her composure after her third D.U.I., screaming “Don’t tell me how I feel!” over and over again at her dumbfounded and frightened husband #2, Ray, played just as compellingly by David Aaron Baker (2ST’s Oblivion Postponed). It shows a level of disconnect in her connection and the fear that lives inside the constantly escaping Mary Page. It is most effectively portrayed at age twenty-seven and thirty-six by the most excellent player of parts, Titiana Maslany (‘Orphan Black‘) finding humor and play in her two scenes of hiding and interaction; one with her therapist, played disconcertingly by Marcia DeBonis (Small Mouth Sounds), and the other with her needy and power-playing boss/lover, Dan, played effectively by Gary Wilmes (Broadway’s Chinglish). Both display equal levels of desperation for something that might save their independent souls, filling out the form of Mary Page Marlowe with embroidered detail and denial.
The craftwork is clean and precise, with set pieces designed simply but cooly by Laura Jellinek (Signature’s Everybody) sliding in and out. The Mary Pages, each find moments of quiet engagement between the different stages, pinpointed in the light provided by designer Tyler Micoleau (TNG’s Peace For Mary Frances), sound design by Brandon Wolcott (PH’s Dance Nation), and original music composed by Bray Poor (Public’s Office Hour), before separating back into their periods of development. The always excellent Blair Brown (Broadway’s The Parisian Woman) portrays that woman, aged sixty-nine sitting and talking with a well crafted nurse, played effectively by the talented Maria Elena Ramirez (Broadway’s Fish in the Dark) as she comes closer and closer to the end of her life, but she also brings her earth-born strength and solidness to Mary Page at fifty-nine and sixty-three. It’s a patchwork piece, this relatively new play by the Pulitzer Prize winning Tracy Letts (2ST’s Man From Nebraska) and as directed with an achingly delicate sense of quietness by the wonderful Lila Neugebauer (PR’s The Wolves, LCT’s After the Blast), the separate square pieces of engagements with this very big cast and its central figure comes together like a finely crafted memory quilt created to hold all the ideas and ideals of Mary’s extended family’s life. It’s stained by experience and tears, worn by repetitive despair and contentment, and forgotten in a chest, but the life that is sewn holds sentiment only when studied and needed. The last moment, an oddly scripted interaction with a handsome Elliot Villar (Broadway’s War Horse) feels a bit too tidy. Taking a metaphor and forcing it strongly forward. Abstractly unfulfilling, the last thread tries its best to pull it all together into one image of a woman gazing off into her future. That moment doesn’t congeal as well as planned, but the quilted final product is comforting in its state of survival and acceptance, not electric, but warm in it’s simplicity. Cause “if you’re going to be mean, it’s good to be accurate“.
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