Mary Jane, by Amy Herzog, at the New York Theater Workshop, is about women, written by a woman, performed by women, directed by a woman and for the most part designed by women, but in all honesty, do women really want to sit through this heartbreakingly depressing play? I know my guest was none too thrilled and felt the play was much too gruesome.
It’s amazing how optimistic single mother Mary Jane (the devastatingly brilliant Carrie Coon) is. She struggles to provide 24-hour care for her special-needs child, who you know from the get-go does not stand a chance. She has had to put her life “on hold for a minute,” as she puts it. Alex (who we never see) was born after just 25 weeks. He was expected to die within days and yet he is almost 3. He has cerebral palsy and that’s just the start of the list of complications. He requires round-the-clock attention, he can neither speak or sit up, needs specialized equipment, and spends at least every few months in the hospital, but to Mary Jane, he is a miracle.
Mary Jane, who wanted to be a teacher, has had to go it alone. Alex’s father couldn’t handle the stress and flew the coop. What makes no sense is the goodness and hope that fills Mary Jane. She has nothing; she lives on the sofa because the one bedroom naturally has been turned into a pediatric ward, studies when she isn’t in demand, and even the job her sister got for her, she will lose due to the amount of hospital time.
We see the daily routine as Alex’s home-care nurse, Sherry, (Liza Colón-Zayas, Between Riverside and Crazy) brings comfort and a refreshing break for Mary Jane. Brianne (Susan Pourfar, Tribes), a new mother faced with the same kind of problems as Mary Jane, gets guidance and nurturing from Mary Jane, who still gives to others. Sherry’s niece, Amelia, (Danaya Esperanza, NYTW’s Othello) shows up, but on the day Alex goes back to the hospital.
The whole play is waiting for the inevitable. It slowly plods out as Mary Jane ends back in the hospital for the last time. There she meets sharp-tongued Chaya, a Hasidic mother of seven (Ms. Pourfar), who tells Mary Jane it is a relief to be in the hospital with her sick daughter. Everything else “wasn’t real” she explains. The chaplain, a recent convert who was a Buddhist (Brenda Wehle, Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…), brings to the forefront the life-or-death questions. It is in these scenes that the play speaks volumes.
Carrie Coon, Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, brings this play full throttle, with a subtly layered performance which is breathtaking. Brenda Wehle, Liza Colón-Zayas, Danaya Esperanza and Susan Pourfar, are the emotions Mary Jane has long tucked away, as they play multiple people who make up Mary Jane’s world.
Anne Kauffman’s direction keeps us off balance, much the way Mary Jane is. The lights by Japhy Weideman, the sound by Leah Gelpe and the set by Laura Jellinek show us the stark reality.
Ms. Herzog is saying much in this play, at times by saying very little. This is a character study, a therapy of sorts, due to Ms. Herzog and her husband, the director Sam Gold, having a child who was born in 2012 with nemaline myopathy, a muscle disease. Mary Jane is a conversation with God; the good, the bad, and the inevitable.
Mary Jane: New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St. until October 29th.