By Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
In Part One of Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane,” currently playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) is at home caring for her two-and-a-half-year-old son Alex. She shares that responsibility with several professional caregivers, including Sherry (played with compassionate expediency by Liza Colón-Zayas) and Donna, the incompetent nurse the audience never sees. Alex, born at twenty-five weeks and four days, suffered a severe brain bleed and almost did not survive. He is now gravely disabled. Mary Jane juggles his care with a job that provides the health insurance needed to pay for Alex’s constant care.
Laura Jellinek’s set design here is closed in, cramped, claustrophobic – much like Mary Jane’s psyche. She seems to be coping with all that she is responsible for; however, others like her building superintendent Ruthie (Brenda Wehle) see a different Mary Jane. While fixing the kitchen sink, Ruthie shares, “You seem to be someone who’s carrying a lot of tension in her body.” Carrie Coon balances Mary Jane’s inner and outer struggles and mechanisms of grappling with the vicissitudes of her life. Ms. Coon portrays a mother who bathes, suctions, lifts, walks, and medicates her disabled boy while fending off depression and exhaustion and abandonment. Ms. Coon’s multilayered performance counterpoints the rich layers of Amy Herzog’s script which, under Anne Kauffman’s razor-sharp direction, are peeled back with sensitivity and grace.
Just prior to Part Two, the set morphs before the audience in ways that must be experienced – to say more would be to take that “miracle” away. Gone is the Queens apartment and, its place, the gleaming sanitized expansiveness of Alex’s hospital room and the common room outside. After being unable to intervene successfully in Alex’s grand mal seizure, Mary Jane and Sherry call 911 and Alex is rushed off to this hospital where he seems suspended between the living and the dead and Mary Jane comes to terms with her “truth,” her mortality, and her fragile finitude.
No longer fully responsible for Alex’s care, Mary Jane has time to interact with Alex’s pediatric intensivist Dr. Toros (Liza Colón-Zayas), the music therapist Kat (played with compassion buried beneath the inability to cope by Danaya Esperanza), Chaya a Hasidic woman (played with a comedic flair tempered by years of sacrifice by Susan Pourfar), and the hospital’s Buddhist chaplain Tenkei (played with a wisdom garnered through challenge by Brenda Wehle). In her conversations with Dr. Toros and Kat, Mary Jane experiences the arbitrary nature of the medical establishment. Chaya, a mother with seven children – her daughter Adina in the hospital – reveals to Mary Jane the sense of reality that comes with the illness of a loved one. Finally, her time with Tenkei opens the possibility of a future without Alex as they both explore the cervices of repentance and reconciliation.
In these conversations, Mary Jane begins to face the arbitrariness of life and the precious gift of acceptance and thanksgiving. She tells Tenkei, “I don’t know whether he’s going to make it out of this surgery. I don’t know what to hope for anymore.” Mary Jane also experiences the breadth and depth of transcendence and catharsis at the play’s end in a scene rich in magical realism immersed in blessed redemptive release.