×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Chicago Theater Review: ‘Mary Page Marlowe’ by Tracy Letts

With:
Blair Brown, Carrie Coon, Laura T. Fisher, Caroline Heffernan, Annie Munch, Rebecca Spence, Ian Barford, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Amanda Drinkall, Jack Edwards, Kristen Fitzgerald, Tess Frazer, Keith D. Gallagher, Sandra Marquez, Ariana Venturi, Madeline Weinstein, Alan Wilder, Gary Wilmes.

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.

Chicago Theater Review: 'Mary Page Marlowe' by Tracy Letts

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 510 seats; $89 top. Opened April 10, reviewed April 9, 2016; runs through May 29. Running time:  1 HOUR, 20 MINS.

Production: A Steppenwolf Theater Company production of a play in one act by Tracy Letts.

Creative: Directed by Anna D. Shapiro.  Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Linda Roethke; lighting, Marcus Doshi; sound, Richard Woodbury; original music, Diana Lawrence; projections, Sven Ortel; wig and hair, Penny Lane Studios; stage manager, Malcolm Ewen.

Cast: Blair Brown, Carrie Coon, Laura T. Fisher, Caroline Heffernan, Annie Munch, Rebecca Spence, Ian Barford, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Amanda Drinkall, Jack Edwards, Kristen Fitzgerald, Tess Frazer, Keith D. Gallagher, Sandra Marquez, Ariana Venturi, Madeline Weinstein, Alan Wilder, Gary Wilmes.

More Legit

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink' Film [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content