“Mary Jane,” Mom to Chronically Sick Child, Gently Explodes

mary jane
Liza Colón-Zayas and Carrie Coon in Mary Jane. Photos: Joan Marcus.

There’s quiet devastation in the all-female voices of Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, now playing at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop after a run last spring at Yale Repertory Theatre. Herzog’s play does explode, but gently, exposing life around the edges of achingly ordinary domestic details.

Carrie Coon assumes the potent, resilient, resonant role of Mary Jane, mother of a chronically ill two-year-old that we never see on stage — except as a pile of clothing on a hospital bed late in the play. The title character, on the other hand, occupies space in each scene: listening, supporting, even laughing. Mary Jane models the strength of a woman who lives with every pulsing, breathing need of a very sick child.

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Four additional actresses take on the eight distinct characters that further populate this single mother’s world, including an apartment superintendent, a visiting nurse and her niece, two different mothers with sick children, various medical personnel and a Buddhist hospital chaplain. Details of the child’s illness, the age of the child, even the very fact of the child himself unfold in easy layers of gentle storytelling.

Liza Colón-Zayas and Coon.

Early on, offstage beeps reveal the core of this humorous and solemn tale — the sound of a monitor in the next room pointing us with aching clarity to a life given over to Alex, the toddler attached to it. Behind one door in this one-bedroom apartment is a child born with cerebral palsy (we hear the label for the child’s condition at the very end of the play).

Early on, Coon’s Mary Jane subtly delays her response to one of these monitor alarms, artfully showing us the exhausting moment-to-moment calibrations of her world. She hears rapid beeps and there’s a silent calculation as to whether it’s a crisis or a more mundane moment to wipe or clear or feed or tend. The moment’s delay might feel a moment too long for the caretaker of a healthy child, but we’re just calibrating our own understanding of Mary Jane’s world. For her, every living moment is filled with alarm after alarm, beep after beep. Her calm pause evokes a universe.

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Multiple layers of female relationships unfold. I wondered for a while if, in the first scene, apartment super Ruthie (Brenda Wehle) might be a roommate or a relative, and whether in the next scene Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas) was a family member rather than the paid caregiver we discover her to be; later we meet Dr. Toros (Colón-Zayas again) and a music therapist (Danaya Esperanza). Whether super or caregiving nurse or mothers of ill infants (played with potency by Susan Pourfar), each actress crafts a characters with worlds of their own, adding new dimensions to the world of Mary Jane.

Coon and Pourfar.

Herzog’s frequent collaborator, director Anne Kauffman, respects the nuanced pace and tone of the scenes and conversations that reveal how Mary Jane has absolutely accommodated her life for Alex — his breathing apparatus, his throat suction tools, other things we hear but don’t see beyond the door to the bedroom. She sleeps, or she tries to, on the living room sofa bed, spreading work on the covers before her, catching a few hours at a time.

The apartment itself seems minimally occupied, with standard-issue blinds at the one visible window and bare furnishings; set designer Laura Jellinek projects that well-worn “lived in” appearance that suggests individuals who don’t collect things or bother decorating, whether due to limited resources or lack of interest. Later, the linoleum tile of the rug-less apartment floor morphs into a hospital waiting area as the “Jellinek walls” — my term for her gambit to craft as many functional sets out of a small playing space as possible — fall, spin, collapse and magically transform.

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Herzog — and therefore Mary Jane — show us her challenges and obstacles, whether it’s debt, desertion by a spouse or a tenuous work situation, rather than tells us. In the hands of a lesser playwright, the plot might smack of an after-school special — you know, the one in which the earnest parent, dealt an unlucky hand, works the system, meets some generous characters, casts off the jerks who can’t travel her road with her (like Alex’s absent father), all the while leading us to faith in the possibilities of life? But Mary Jane is not a Pollyanna who inspires everyone else with a positive view, even if she seems to play it that way in the early scenes. The revealing accumulation of events, like the revealing of the sets, sketch out Mary Jane’s complexity. She’s wound tightly, even when receiving solace from others.

This is the story of an ill child, the systems assembled to maintain him, and hope in the face of dire circumstances. The kindness of strangers, the tenuous connection to healthcare through employment — these could have been the political focus of this story. But Herzog avoids the agitprop danger. Even the aforementioned absence of Alex’s father, her ex-husband, is presented without blame. He couldn’t deal with it, Mary Jane explains without assigning him blame.

Unclogging a sink. Pulling out a sofa bed. Discussing classes, work, benefits. The audacity of hope in the face of mortality. Mary Jane endures because she must. As the play arrives its ambiguous ending, one can only wonder if Alex will draw upon such strength.