Before playwright Tracy Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro teamed up at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater for the explosive, Tony and Pulitzer-winning family drama “August: Osage County,” they collaborated on the pensive “Man from Nebraska,” the more direct tonal and thematic predecessor of their latest collaboration, “Mary Page Marlowe.” This is Letts in contemplative mode, theatrically plumbing large questions like “what is a person?” and, therefore, “what is a life?” In a dense and demanding 80-minute one-act, six different women, including Blair Brown (“Orange is the New Black”) and Carrie Coon (“The Leftovers”), play the title character at different ages, with the narrative jumping around in time from one scene to the next. Intensely thoughtful more than dramatically intense, the work has depth and an elegant potency, but its purposeful distancing effects make it more likely to be much admired than wildly popular.
The play begins with Rebecca Spence as a 40-year-old Mary Page, informing her two children Wendy (Madeleine Weinstein) and Louis (Jack Edwards) that she and their father are divorcing and they soon will be moving from Dayton, Ohio, to Lexington, Kentucky, where she has found a new accounting job. It’s a recognizable scene: twelve-year-old Wendy thinks it’s the end of the world, while the younger Louis doesn’t have much to say at all.
From there, we see Mary Page in college (Annie Munch) having her Tarot cards read by a friend in a scene that directly raises the perennial question of free will versus determinism. Have Mary Page’s cards already been dealt, even though her friends consider her a dreamer, her life filled with possibility?
We jump then to Mary Page in her 60s, played by the estimable Brown. She has found a comfortable ordinariness in a happy marriage with a third husband (Alan Wilder). We get strong hints, though, of previous tragedy and trauma.
We continue to time travel as far back as Mary Page’s infancy, checking in on her parents’ fraught and unsuccessful marriage post-WWII, and as far forward as a hospital scene late in life (Brown again). There are extramarital affairs, therapy, problems with alcohol, and yes, big mistakes and a thickly foreshadowed but still devastating loss.
It’s heavy stuff, with barely any of Letts’ famed penchant for black comedy. In Shapiro’s production, there is a consistent, somewhat sorrowful mood. The director and her design team amplify the remoteness of the piece, removing a part of the Steppenwolf’s stage to turn it into a proscenium, and then layering the stage at various depths with scrims for black and white projections that help place the Midwestern scenes. At one point, we see — subtly, behind a scrim — a collection of empty picture frames, a symbolic expression of unknowability.
Letts also includes a trail of metaphorical references: those tarot cards, the song “Que Sera Sera,” a quilt made by many hands that still manages to hang together over time, even a mystery novel with the last pages burned. In some scenes, particularly Brown’s, the metaphor and exposition almost seem the primary driver, in that not much is occurring between the characters on stage.
The ending currently comes off as abrupt and awkward. But the performances are all compelling, especially Spence, who starts us out and returns once, and Coon, playing Mary Page in her 20s and then her 30s. Even within a single actress we see complete change.
It is, of course, hard to get to know Mary Page — or to feel we do — as well as we likely would if there were fewer actresses, but that’s the point. She is not the same person from decade to decade, even though her life contains all these versions of herself. We seek patterns and explanations, just as she does, trying to puzzle out who she “really” is and why her life unfolds the way it does. To the play and production’s great credit, “Mary Page Marlowe” evokes a complex response that is both heady and emotional, and that reflects how the character herself so often seems to feel: uncertain, unclear, incomplete.