Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Within her Queens, New York, home, Mary Jane (realized with understanding by Emily Donahoe) is a single mother for her small son Alex, who is not yet three. At birth, the child experienced a brain bleed and he has a paralyzed vocal chordand more. We never see him but gather that, at best, he is confined to a wheelchair. Mary Jane (a middle school math teacher), at the outset, is colloquial, conversational, and absolutely devoted to her boy. Mary Jane chats with her building superintendent Ruthie (Kathleen Chalfant).
Soon, Sherry (Shona Tucker) visits. She appears, in medical supervisory/counseling capacity, to see how Alex and Mary Jane fare. A bit later during the first hour, Mary Jane becomes a friendly advisor to Brianne (Miriam Silverman), who is in the beginning stage of coping with her child Seth, another young one with sickness. Moving along, Sherry returns and this time brings her niece Amelia (Vella Lovell). Alex suffers a seizure and, as the first act closes, the stage (previously inclusive of a bedroom and kitchen as effectively designed by Laura Jellinek) begins to openinto something else.
The second portion of the play occurs within a hospital. Mary Jane is there for close to two months as it becomes evident that Alex's condition is worsening. Actress Shona Tucker is now cast as Dr. Toros, who talks with Mary Jane and finally provides perspective regarding Alex's condition and prospects. Playwright Herzog, as the play evolves, brings comedic relief. When Mary Jane meets with Chaya (Silverman in a dark wig), Mary Jane mistakenly greets her with "Hiya." Chaya, who has a number of children of her own, is now dealing with a painful circumstance related to her youngest. Vella Lovell comes along as a music therapist named Kat who at first sings "a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh" from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." As Mary Jane remarks that this isn't quite a suitable choice, Kat, in a sweet voice, begins lyrics from "Bluebird, Bluebird," which are beautifully appropriate. Late in the act, Chalfant returns as Tenkei, a Buddhist who is also a hospital chaplain; again, a dose of humor offsets the anxiety and distressing nature of very personal suffering. Costume designer Emily Rebholz's wardrobing of the second act Chalfant is catchy.
Herzog's dextrous scripting yields a play as real as could be: this is contemporary life as is. There isn't any need for a massive dramatic hook or leading question. Mary Jane is completely devoted to Alex; he is her life. When he is hospitalized, she wants, desperately, to bring him home. During other moments of the production, she is an animated, self-aware young woman who perceives the scenes of her life. The playwright does not need to stun the audience, during the early going, with shock. Instead, she allows her convincing dialogue to carry forward. One watches and empathizes, sympathizes, ultimately hopes for positive resolution.
The five women on stage listen and react to one another. Nothing is forced. Emily Donahoe is most impressive as a person of inner strength who is bound, in every way, to her struggling boy. Shona Tucker fully persuades in both of her roles. Kauffman, directing, grants the women figurative room to interpret and to interrelate. There isn't a great deal of levity about Mary Jane. Herzog, thankfully, injects moments where one can breathe and laugh. Yet, there will be a return to a story which is, to say the least, grimly heartbreaking. The Yale Rep production, though, is never melodramatic. The world premiere presentation is performed with a deft touch and various sets of skills. Hence, it is not a stretch to leave the theater feeling that this has been a graceful and gracious experience.
Mary Jane continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, through May 20th, 2017. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.