By: Isa Goldberg
Playwright, Amy Herzog traffics in the simple realities of human experience — the dailyness that both masks and reveals an inner drama. And while the style of her realism is highly detailed and finely textured, her works sustain a contemporary sensibility.
In, 4000 Miles, she garnered a 2011 Pulitzer nomination. That story about the relationship between a young man and his grandmother reveals the existential throes of a young man’s coming of age.
Yet, the feeling of lovelessness and longing that characterizes his journey is told with such simplicity that it appears almost banal. Were it not for the relationship with his grandmother, through whom he discovers his emotional awakening, it truly would be just that, and nothing more.
In a similar fashion, her new play, Mary Jane, at New York Theater Workshop, follows the titular character, a single mother, played by Carrie Coon. Coon, whose roles on television’s The Leftovers and Fargo have brought critical acclaim, delivers a stellar, albeit subtle performance.
When we first meet her, Coon’s Mary Jane is chatting with her landlady (Brenda Wehle) who is fixing the clog in the kitchen sink. Obviously, Mary Jane is so hungry for the companionship that the conversation, even though it’s about cancer, has a charming, light hearted air.
Meanwhile, the whir and buzz of the monitoring equipment in the living room where she lives and sleeps, alerts us to the fact that her 3-year-old son, Alex, is still breathing. Born after just 25 weeks of gestation, the child whom we never meet, but whom we experience in many unspoken ways, raises nitty gritty issues about life. Incapable of speaking, suffering from cerebral palsy, he requires around the clock care.
Everything here revolves around the child’s illness. The mother’s aspirations are put on hold; she loses her job; and her husband walks out on them because it’s too hard to handle. And she, apparently, takes all of it with an easy going, forgiving air.
Indeed, Coon brings an uncanny sense of reality to the role. Even her sense of humor prevails. Clearly, it takes a lot to break her, but when she cracks, we recognize the world weary gaze, the underlying angst, as well as the frailty of life.
As directed by Anne Kauffman, Herzog’s play surprises us with just that sort of emotional depth. Mary Jane’s ability to love a terminally ill child; her selflessness; her need to be a caregiver — these are all quintessential traits of being a woman. And none of them are diminished here. None of them are too big or too small, and all of them demand her uncompromising presence.
In addition to Coon, Brenda Wehle, portrays the landlady at the beginning, and the hospital chaplain toward the end. While they are two completely different characters, Wehle mines the soulfulness in each of them.
Similarly, Danaya Esperanza, as the nurse’s adult daughter is skeptical of the breezy, nonchalant way Mary Jane accepts the alarming sounds of monitors that signal an emergency. While later, in the hospital, as Alex’s music therapist, she is empathic about the crushing weight of the mother’s predicament.
The others, Susan Pourfar and Liza Colon-Zayas, also deliver nuanced performances. Lara Jellinek’s set unfolds from apartment life to hospital, where normalcy is shattered.
A beautiful production of a well crafted work!
Mary Jane ****
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Through October 29, 2017
Photos: Joan Marcus