Reviews

Mary Jane *****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 27, 2024: The titular heroine of Amy Herzog’s affecting play Mary Jane—a name, as far as I can tell, not intended as a euphemism for marijuana—reminds us that ordinary people can be saints and that religion has nothing to do with it. The play, which premiered at the Yale Rep, was seen at the New York Theatre Workshop starring Carrie Coons in 2017, and is now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a Manhattan Theatre Club production, with movie star Rachel McAdams making a moving Broadway debut as Mary Jane. Two of the four supporting players—Brenda Wehle and Susan Pourfar—are back, and director Anne Kauffman is once more at the helm. This review adapts much of what I wrote of the original.

Rachel McAdams and Brenda Wehle.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 27, 2024: The titular heroine of Amy Herzog’s affecting play Mary Jane—a name, as far as I can tell, not intended as a euphemism for marijuana—reminds us that ordinary people can be saints and that religion has nothing to do with it. The play, which premiered at the Yale Rep, was seen at the New York Theatre Workshop starring Carrie Coons in 2017, and is now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a Manhattan Theatre Club production, with movie star Rachel McAdams making a moving Broadway debut as Mary Jane. Two of the four supporting players—Brenda Wehle and Susan Pourfar—are back, and director Anne Kauffman is once more at the helm. This review adapts much of what I wrote of the original.

Maybe, like me, you know one or more people like Mary Jane, the divorced young mother of a severely disabled child, Alex (unseen), who must balance the demands of work with taking care of his extensive needs. (Born prematurely, Alex has cerebral palsy. Herzog, married to director Sam Gold, was the mother of a child with the muscular disorder nemaline myothapy who died last year).

Susan Pourfar and Rachel McAdams.

Mary Jane’s the type of woman whose incredible love for her severely handicapped kid makes us wonder how she does it. How can she maintain, at least, on the surface, the impression that she’s in control of her emotions, even projecting a patina of optimism and humor within the whirlwind of operations, medications, alarm beepers, oxygen tanks, tubes, and complications related to health care services?  

And faced, as Mary Jane is, with a toddler as physically and neurologically impaired as is Alex, how can she treat him as if he were normal, convinced he’s in there somewhere, not only listening to her but comprehending although unable to communicate on his own? The amazing thing is that Mary Jane, exceptional as she is, is not unusual; she’s the avatar of women everywhere whose maternal love gives them the resilience and fortitude to handle problems that would probably crush lesser mortals.

April Mathis

Herzog’s play is in two essentially plotless parts running an intermissionless hour and 35 minutes. In the first, we gradually learn the details of Mary Jane’s situation by observing her in her one-bedroom Queens apartment, chatting with her—perhaps a bit-too-wise—female super, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle, from the 2017 production), there to unclog a stuffed-up sink. We then see Mary Jane’s interactions with Sherry (April Mathis), a super-devoted visiting nurse; another disabled kid’s mother, Brianne (Susan Pourfar, the other 2017 returnee), to whom the always giving Mary Jane offers helpful, practical advice; and Sherry’s sweet, albeit oddly dressed, college-student niece, Amelia (Lily Santiago), 22, visiting from Durham, NC, who happens to be present when Alex has a grand mal seizure.

The second part begins after an eye-catching scene change in which the entire living room set slowly flies upward to reveal the hospital to which Alex has been transported. During this part, all the superb supporting actors from part one reappear in new guises, making them practically unrecognizable from their earlier roles. 

Rachel McAdams and Lily Santiago.

Here, as Alex, hidden from our view, lies in the ICU bed placed up center within a space capable of being enclosed by a curtain, Mary Jane confers with Alex’s sympathetic but realistic physician, Dr. Toros (Mathis); shares experiences with another disabled kid’s mother, Chaya (Pourfas), a Hasidic woman with seven children; is joined by Kat (Santiago), the hospital’s hard-to-get-ahold-of music therapist, who sings for Alex despite it not being on her schedule; and an American woman with a shaved head, encased in the voluminous garments of a Buddhist nun. Her name is Tenkei (Wehle) and she’s a former Episcopalian-turned-Buddhist nun, visiting—in her capacity as one of the hospital’s chaplains—to offer spiritual consolation as Alex is operated on.

The all-female, all-angels dramatis personae obviously has a feminist slant but that doesn’t prevent the play from being a deeply engaging, tear-inducing portrait of a particular mother’s travails. Herzog’s generally naturalistic dramaturgy sometimes seeps into theatrical contrivance, like the well-acted, charming, yet somewhat hard-to-swallow chaplain scene, and the lyrically indeterminate conclusion, but it remains consistently involving. And those moments that catch you with your nose running and eyes flooding are to be treasured from a theatre season that too infrequently pushed one’s emotional buttons so directly.

Under Anne Kauffman’s sensitive direction, the acting is beautifully restrained, honest, and fully believable. Rachel McAdams, whose girl-next-door prettiness radiates human goodness, could not be better as a woman burdened by suffering but preventing it from interfering with her responsibility to love and protect her child, while also showing interest in and compassion for others. Her Mary Jane has inscribed another notch on my heart.

Susan Pourfar and Rachel McAdams.

While I felt in 2017 that the double casting tended to draw attention to the play’s artificiality, it didn’t faze me at all this time. The actors—aided by Brenda Abbandandolo’s excellent costumes and J. Jared Janas’s hair, wig, and makeup design—make such impressive distinctions between each of their roles that, if you weren’t aware of the trick you’d think different actors were involved. 

Both of Lael Jellinek’s sets, smartly lit by Ben Stanton, are pretty much the same as they were Off Broadway, although, in an obvious concession to theatrical convention and technical needs, the walls in the kitchen-sink scene are higher than you’d find in a typical Queens apartment. The wall color has been revised from the garish aqua of 2017 to a more appealing teal; however, Mary Jane seems the type whose idea of home décor, even on the cheap, would be a step up from the near total lack of adornment we see. Anyway the absence of Off Broadway’s visible stagehands with headphones for shifts is a major advance.

I’ve seen eight shows during the 2023-2024 season’s crazily crowded final week, most of them of the blockbuster variety. The one that most affected me, even though I’d seen it before, was the decidedly unglitzy Mary Jane with its tender, gently comical, warmly inspiring depiction of a saintly woman’s maternal devotion. 

Mary Jane *****
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre/Manhattan Theatre Club
261 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through June 16, 2024
Photography: Mathew Murphy, 2024

Rachel McAdams and Lily Santiago.