By Karen Isaacs
Amy Herzog’s new play, Mary Jane, is an interesting new drama that will leave you puzzled by its abrupt ending. The play is getting its world premiere at the Yale Rep through Saturday, May 20.
The title character is the mother of a severely handicapped two-and-a-half year old son, Alex. She is a single mom trying to juggle a job, a plethora of care-givers, doctors and social services while maintaining her sanity. Over the course of several months, Alex faces several crises with the last one most likely leading to his death.
In the first act which is set in Mary Jane’s apartment, we meet the superintendent of her apartment building (Ruthie), one of the nurses that stay overnight (Sherry), and another mother (Brianne) who is just beginning this journey. Mary Jane is sharing important information about how to negotiate the system with her.
The act ends with Alex suffering a crises (a seizure) and 9-11 is called.
Act two is in the hospital where Alex has been for many weeks going through a series of setbacks. Mary Jane is constantly at his bedside which leads her to losing her job. Again, she is surrounded by women: Dr. Toros who tries make her realize the likely outcome; Chaya, a mother keeping a vigil for her daughter; Tenkei, a Buddhist chaplain; and Kat, the music therapist.
The play ends abruptly when Mary Jane, who suffers from migraines and feels one is coming on is talking with Tenkei. The chaplain dims the lights until there is just a spotlight on Mary Jane’s face, she gets up and walks towards the light. The last line is “God. What a strange…”
That may be the words that playgoers are thinking as they exit the theater. As in most world premieres, this is a play that needs work.
From the playwright’s notes in the program, it seems as though she is trying to emphasize the support that women give each other. Yet she is only partially successful in that. It seems more that Mary Jane – who retains an almost impossibly optimistic point of view and sense of humor – is constantly negotiating with these other women. It begins with the Super of the building who while fixing a stopped up drain, notices that the window bars (required by law for child safety) have been removed. Mary Jane removed them so that Alex would have a clearer view; yet she must cajole the super into either not forcing her to reinstall them or reporting the removal. Next is the nurse Sherry who want to report another of the nurses for falling asleep on the job. Mary Jane knows how hard it is to get all of the shifts covered; even a lax nurse is better than having no one there. And so it goes.
In act two, the negotiations continue, although to a lesser extent. Here it is the doctor who must negotiate the system to get the music therapist to visit.
One of the concerns with this play is that it switches gears so often; no wonder the audience is puzzled. Act one seems like a traditional TV drama about a single mother (the husband left almost immediately after Alex’s birth), and the problems of raising a severely disabled child. Alex suffers from generalized seizure disorder and lung disease. The result is that he is dependent on breathing assistance, has almost no mobility and cannot really hold his head up. This may be the result of his being very premature.
So act one has some laughs as Mary Jane optimism and good humor makes her seem like a “little Miss Sunshine.” Does she every break down? How does she manage on so little sleep? With so much responsibility? Has she walled off the likely prognosis from her consciousness? How does she go on?
Act two becomes both more symbolic and more surreal. One of the mechanisms that Herzog uses is Mary Jane’s migraines. Migraines – a very severe headache with a variety of causes that are still not totally understood or controllable — often start off with visual auras which can affect vision and hearing as the headache progresses. The onset of one of Mary Jane’s headaches is the rationale for some of the surreal aspects. In the throes of a migraine, a sufferer may be unsure of what is real.
Mary Jane’s difficulties multiple in act two. Alex is in the hospital for weeks and seems to move from one crises to another; at the end of the play he is in surgery. She loses her job because she has taken seven weeks off to be at the hospital, and her migraines are back. (Stress can be a trigger for them).
Herzog has made some interesting choices, but also some puzzling ones. One choice is that except for Mary Jane, all the actors play two roles – one in the first act and one in the second. Those roles in the second act seem to be variations of the roles they play in the first act.
Thus Katherine Chalfant plays the building super in act one, talks about the mind-body connection and that Mary Jane seems to have stress in her body. In act two, she in Tenkei, the Buddhist chaplain at the hospital.
And so it goes. Ruthie, the nurse in act one becomes Dr. Toros in act two; Amelia (Ruthie’s teenage niece) who visits in act one becomes the music therapist who visits Alex; and Brianne (the mother) who is beginning the journey of parenting a disabled child becomes Chaya in act two. Chaya, who is an orthodox Jew, has seven children including her frequently hospitalized daughter.
Anne Kauffman has directed the play with finesse, keeping the various parts moving and helping us to understand much of the play, though she does not totally succeed. She is aided by the lighting created by Elizabeth Green and the sounds designed by Ian Scot. The sound in particular sets the two location – a busy city with subway and traffic noises, and a hospital. Laura Jellinek has created the two setting – the apartment where Mary Jane seemingly sleeps in what should be the living room and the hospital – its waiting room, snack room and patient bedside.
Emily Donahoe is very good as Mary Jane. She brings to the role a down-to-earth quality that combines humor and resilience. She creates a woman who keeps going because she must and the only way to retain her sanity is with a positive outlook.
The other performers are equally adept at creating characters that are for the most part more sketched in than fully developed.
As I was watching this play, I had to wonder about the title character’s name: Mary Jane. We all know that it is often a reference to marijuana. Was this intentional? If so, why and what does it mean?
Mary Jane is a play that may be depressing for many people, especially those who have experienced or dealt with disabled children and their families.
It is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven through Saturday, May 20. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.
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