At Last, There’s ‘Peace for Mary Frances’ (and Lois Smith)

The legendary actress is in pain, and her character's family is giving her more of it.

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Natalie Gold, J. Smith-Cameron, Mia Katigbak and Brian Miskell in "Peace for Mary Frances." Photos: Monique Carboni.

In The New Group’s production of Lily Thorne’s painful and beautiful play Peace for Mary Frances, an extended family contends with an aging parent and numerous family legacies. One by one, in groups of two and three and four and sometimes more, family members and health care workers cope with both past and present and hope for the future. Adult siblings tussle over past harms and perceived slights that swirl around the illness and death of the matriarch who binds them. We are all here for a time, these characters teach us — living together, loving occasionally, passing the torch on the way out. One character is dying of natural causes; one lurks on the edge of addiction relapse; one nears financial insolvency; in waves it all emerges. Director Lila Neugebauer keeps the plot turns moving with delicacy and nuance. And it’s mesmerizing.

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Natalie Gold, Lois Smith and Heather Burns.

What mesmerizes, in part, is how the two male and seven female actors forge into an ensemble. The titular nonagenarian matriarch (masterful Lois Smith) is on oxygen and clearly in physical distress until hospice arrives with morphine; the pain may be within her body, but it may also be from the reality of the family she built. Visitors and attendants stream through, among them her children: Fanny (terrifying Johanna Day), the youngest, an addict in recovery; middle Alice (sweet, pained J. Smith-Cameron); and eldest Eddie (heartbreaking Paul Lazar), a lawyer talking finances. And her adult granddaughters: actress Helen (sprightly, damaged Heather Burns), and Rosie (rooted, resilient Natalie Gold), whose infant is with her throughout the play. In addition, three health care and hospice staff — Michael (Brian Miskell), Clara (Melle Powers) and Bonnie (Mia Katigbak) — speak of death honestly while helping Mary Frances and her brood to live life in the moment. The house, we notice, is not only full of present issues but past ghosts — especially patriarch Poppy, dead 18 years, to whom Mary Frances speaks daily.

I was not surprised to read that Thorne began her career as a documentary filmmaker. In her professional playwriting debut, the work seems at peace with allowing characters to tell their stories step by step, word by word, using the pace of her old boss, documentarian Ric Burns, whose subjects have ranged from Eugene O’Neill and Ansel Adams to NYC and Nantucket. I would conjecture that Thorne has learned lessons, too, from her collaboration with activist-historian Howard Zinn, whose A People’s History of the United States instructs us on how to take our history and our future into our own hands:

The democratic principle, enunciated in the words of the Declaration of Independence, declared that government was secondary, that the people who established it were primary. Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people, and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world.

In its own way, this is the sensibility that resonates through Peace for Mary Frances.

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The genius set by Dane Laffrey appears as much offstage as on, a suburban split-level with windows, doors, offstage rooms, exposed wall joists and simple furnishings that hide the play’s biggest secret: Mary Frances has more resources than anyone knows.

This isn’t a story, by the way, of a person fighting death. Early on, Mary Frances says, “I’m ready, I’m ready to go. I’ve had a full life. I’ve had a good life.” Instead, this is a story of the intergenerational transmission of pain, blame and finally forgiveness.

Melle Powers and Johanna Day.

Indeed, the real shock in Peace for Mary Frances is a recognition of end-of-life behaviors: how heinous siblings can be to one another; how tenaciously we hold onto grudges forged in childhood and adolescence. Through it all, Mary Frances can be stubborn and petulant, yet still model acceptance and forgiveness. She also observes that pretending may be the best we can do. “You have to forgive and forget,” she says, adding, “You never forget but you have to pretend.”

Everything circles back to a monologue by Fanny in the play’s early moments. Reading dire stories from the town newspaper about a family abusing their children, and recalling past misdeeds of their neighbors, she notes, “I don’t complain. I know we’re all just doing the best we can.” Shards of life stories and ghosts remind us that we carry our past lives with us into our present; that no one is ever truly gone. This new play is both heartbreaking and hopeful, presenting a stage of life that’s too long and not long enough. We’re all just doing the best we can.