Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review: The Great Lengths a Mother Takes

By Michael Block

From the jump, Amy Herzog sets you up for heartbreak, no matter the result when the final blackout is called. It’s a testament to just how exceptionally real her latest play is. Presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Mary Jane tackles the reality of a single mom going to great lengths to take care of her sick son.
Following the titular character, Mary Jane is a play that brings light through the darkness as a single mother confronts that struggles and realities of nurturing a chronically ill child in today’s world. A slice of life play that peeks into Mary Jane’s days of balancing work and parenting, Amy Herzog captures the essence and spirit of the human condition. Herzog’s writing is some of her finest. The characters she has written are authentic and emotionally grounded. Even if they stray into something a bit bigger, they are tapped into reality. With the guidance of director Anne Kauffman, Mary Jane is a beautifully naturalistic drama that pulls at your heartstrings. Mary Jane provides a rare opportunity to tell a story on stage that moves along naturally that is usually saved for the screen. That said, it does relinquish cinematic pacing. The middle encounters a slightly sluggish few beats, but that is how Herzog gifts us the exposition. What Herzog does so effortlessly is providing bursts of reprieve. The material can be daunting and heavy, yet she finds moments to allow a hint of humor and moments to brush the sorrow away. The scene between Mary Jane and Chaya, another mother of a sick child, is exceptional as it succeeds in giving both Mary Jane and the audience a moment to exhale. Mary Jane’s experience, while not entirely singular, is personal. Yet Herzog has found a strong way to make the story relate to each person watching. There’s just enough ambiguity in the circumstance to allow the story to resonate individually. It is a story of resilience after all.
photo by Joan Marcus
Let’s face the sad reality, Carrie Coon is quite possibly the most underrated performers of our generation. Amy Herzog’s brilliant writing is elevated by Coon’s exceptional work. She gives an emotionally sturdy performance as the heroic Mary Jane. As the single mom, Coon finds the optimism through the devastatingly difficult circumstances. While Mary Jane is alone on the surface, she steadfastly relies on the assistance of the nurses, specifically Sherry, who is eager to help any way she can. Liza Colon-Zayas does a wonderful job playing Sherry, but there’s not much of a shift in her second character, Dr. Toros. It falters into something stereotypical about the medical field. Susan Pourfar has a bit part in the first half of the show but when she comes out as Chaya, she soars. She captures the speech pattern and inflections flawlessly without dipping into a caricature.
Anne Kauffman provides grippingly raw direction. While it did hit that one slight snag, Kauffman’s ability to keep the piece moving yet lived in allowed Herzog’s story to be told through an expressive lens. Mary Jane is very much a naturalistic play. The height of the drama brings the story from Mary Jane’s apartment into the hospital. To make this shift, the theatrical bones are exposed. With such a natural play, the scenic shift desired the run crew to be in scrubs. The harsh stage blacks against the stark white hospital walls pulled focus a touch. Laura Jellinek’s scenic design was quite effective, capturing Mary Jane’s personality within the apartment. The spacious apartment had a hint of old and new. It’s worn down and imperfect as it captures the essence of a typical city dwelling. Not all of the furniture is cohesive, but showcases Mary Jane’s priorities. Likewise, costume designer Emily Rebholz captured Mary Jane through her attire. It was laidback but deliberate.
Amy Herzog has written something exceptional in Mary Jane. It’s an important story that doesn’t rely on frills. It’s simple and profound. New York Theatre Workshop has produced another hit.