Yale Repertory Theatre
“Mary Jane,” Amy Herzog’s shattering world premiere play, is currently receiving a fine production at Yale Repertory Theatre. Focusing on a young mother, named Mary Jane, trying to take care of her son, who has cerebral palsy, while keeping her head above water, this play is sure to strike a chord with any audience member who has ever cared for a loved one. One of the best qualities of Amy Herzog new work is that the playwright is able to leaven the deep sadness in the play with a certain degree of humor. In a way, the play “Mary Jane” is a lot like its protagonist: it presents the harsh reality and heartbreak of the situation with a determined outlook of hope and optimism. Emily Donahoe gives a sensational performance in the title role and she is surrounded by an equally talented cast. “Mary Jane,” at Yale Repertory Theatre, is sometimes wrenching to sit through, but it is most definitely worth seeing.
Director Anne Kauffman has done an excellent job of directing this play, starting with the superlative performances she has elicited from her cast. As mentioned, Emily Donahoe plays Mary Jane, and she is in just about every scene in the play. As the play opens, on the set of a New York City apartment, the audience only gradually realizes the gravity of exactly what is going on in the show. Mary Jane’s son is named Alex and, though we never get to see him, his presence is felt throughout. In this first scene, Emily Donahoe is seated at the kitchen table as she tries to make a list of the things she needs. The always brilliant Kathleen Chalfant joins Donahoe onstage as Ruthie, the superintendent who is attempting to unclog the kitchen sink. As the two women talk to each other, one only slowly becomes aware that Mary Jane’s young son is in the nearby bedroom.
In addition to Kathleen Chalfant, who finds unexpected laughs as Ruthie and then appears late in the show as a transcendent Buddhist monk, there are a host of other actresses in the play who offer superior performances. Shona Tucker is terrific as Sherry, a visiting nurse, who attempts to help Mary Jane organize a schedule of home health aides to take care of Alex. It is a nice touch that the playwright gives each of these actresses (except for Mary Jane) a second role to play in Act II. Tucker nicely plays a sympathetic doctor in the second act, as the play moves from the New York apartment to a hospital.
Similarly, Miriam Sliverman shines as both Brianne, a mother facing the same challenges that Mary Jane is dealing with, and then as Chaya, a woman whose child is occupying the same hospital room as Mary Jane’s son. Finally, Vella Lovell displays her range as Amelie, the curious and helpful niece of Shona Tucker’s Sherry, and then later as Kat, a compassionate music therapist at the hospital. All of the actresses in this show truly make strong contributions and are invaluable to this new play.
Director Anne Kauffman also does fine work with her designers, in particular scenic designer Laura Jellinek, whose opening set is that of an apartment, before it opens up in the second act to reveal a cold and sterile hospital setting. Just the feel of this hospital is enough to knock the wind out of you. Costume designer Emily Rebholz provides the entirely appropriate attire for all the characters to wear and lighting designer Elizabeth Green has done wonderful work, particularly in illuminating scenes in the apartment and then in the closing moments of the play (not to be revealed here).
If there is a flaw in Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane,” it is that the show ends entirely too abruptly: I personally wanted to find out more about the characters and the situation that was occurring in the play. Still, “Mary Jane” is a world premiere work, and the playwright will no doubt make more changes after the run at Yale Repertory Theatre. Even as it is, “Mary Jane” succeeds on many levels, managing to balance the extreme sorrow in the show with a good deal of humor, as well (without minimizing what is going on in the play). This show may sound like a real downer, but the combined skills of everyone involved, especially the heroic central performance by Emily Donahoe, make it a must-see.
“Mary Jane” continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through May 20, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.
Photo: (L-R): Emily Donahoe and Miriam Silverman
Photo by Joan Marcus