“Mary Jane,” a heart-stopping play about women as domestic caretakers, was written by a woman, directed by a woman, largely designed by women, and performed by women. But Amy Herzog’s devastating new work, now playing at New York Theater Workshop and featuring an infinitely optimistic single mother struggling to provide 24-hour care for her special-needs child, is must-see theater for anyone with a heart.
Carrie Coon (a 2017 Emmy nominee for “Fargo”) burrows deep down into the multi-layered character of Mary Jane, a single mother who has devoted her life to caring for her 3-year-old son, Alex, who has cerebral palsy. The actress emerges with the searing performance of a woman who is everything a mother is supposed to be – loving, nurturing, fiercely protective, and altogether selfless. But in addition to being the perfect mother, Mary Jane is a person in her own right, a woman with the joyous spirit and the indomitable strength to do battle with her grief. Mary Jane is a person of many parts – and Coon respects and relates to them all.
In another lifetime, Mary Jane might have been a perfectly ordinary mother, making healthy school lunches, putting her foot down about bedtime, and giving herself some “me time” at the gym. But that’s one of the pertinent points Herzog makes in this play – that even a perfectly ordinary mother with no special skills or miraculous aptitudes becomes a tower of strength when her child needs her.
Over the course of this wrenching one-act drama, Mary Jane juggles the working shifts of housekeepers, baby sitters, doctors, nurses, and nurses’ aides, and springs into action whenever Alex has a seizure (he’s had three since he was born) — all the while desperately trying to hold onto a job that she needs for the medical coverage. The beauty of the character and the wonder of Coon’s performance is that, through it all, Mary Jane succeeds in maintaining her upbeat nature, her life-affirming optimism, her wonderful sense of humor.
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Believe it or not, this play is full of laughs. They just happen to be on the morbid side, as are the people who figure in Mary Jane’s sadly narrow life. Playwright Herzog made a point of wanting the actors to double in the play’s other eight roles. Director Anne Kauffman, her frequent and always perceptive interpreter, obliged with a top-drawer supporting cast of four. (Just a thought, but maybe Herzog and Kauffman are reminding us that hard-working actors can relate to the play’s overworked and stressed-out characters.)
One of these characters openly acknowledges Mary Jane’s burden. That would be Ruthie, the laconic superintendent of her depressing apartment house in darkest Queens. (Laura Jellinek designed Mary Jane’s demoralizing one-bedroom apartment.) Brenda Wehle, who also plays a Buddhist nun in the gorgeous final scene, gives a hilariously deadpan performance of the dour super, who is working to unclog the kitchen sink. When Mary Jane tries to warm her up with a story about some cute kids she saw on the subway, Ruthie responds with a narrative about dead people on the tracks.
Once started, Ruthie’s on a roll. “You seem to be someone who’s carrying a lot of tension in her body,” she tells Mary Jane. “I wonder if you have an outlet for expression, or if you’re absorbing that all in your body. … because that’s how my sister got cancer.”
Ruthie herself swims, does yoga, and has deep tissue massages. Mary Jane barely has time to put her head down at the end of the day, because there is no end of the day; she is constantly on call for Alex. Her life is an unending series of ups and downs. As a friend told her when Alex was born, “Mary Jane, you’ll still have good days and bad days.” Herzog’s perfectly modulated dialogue and carefully structured dramaturgy reflect these ups and downs. A kind word, or even a wisecrack, is enough to break up a harrowing moment. By the same token, in the midst of a pleasant exchange with a friend, the shrieking alarm in Alex’s room is bound to go off.
If Mary Jane has a talent, it’s that she’s genuinely interested in other people, quick to share their problems and even quicker to offer help. That’s another of Herzog’s themes – the way that women who are perfect strangers will meet and instantly bond, exchanging the most intimate secrets about themselves and extending a hand in a storm.
With Alex’s nurse, Sherry (a salt-of-the-earth perf from Colon-Zayas, who plays a doctor when they get to the hospital), Mary Jane is a helpful and knowledgeable assistant. With her Facebook friend, Brianne (played with kindness by Susan Pourfar), she shares her encyclopedic knowledge of what’s in store for her as the mother of a severely disabled child – and how to work the system to survive.
At the hospital, Pourfar plays a self-assured Hasidic wife who expects her husband to help with child-care duties. But every other mother accepts her solo caretaking duties as if they were destined from birth to take on this burden. And there are more women where they came from. Danaya Esperanza, who plays a sensitive music therapist at the hospital, gives another lovely performance as Mary Jane’s niece, Amelia, who seems poised to carry on the womanly traditions when her time comes.
You can’t help but wonder who might save these women from the caretaker role they assume as their birthright. Perhaps another woman. Yes, definitely another woman.