Six actors and a fake baby in sequential performances dramatize one woman’s life journey in Tracy Letts’ Mary Page Marlowe at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. The story is an expertly selected set of key points in this woman’s life, from infancy to terminal diagnosis. And it’s a kind and cruel and glorious ride.
Mary Page Marlowe, who after marriages, divorces and widowhood drops her last name and middle name and then takes them all back, is a 20th-century middle-class everywoman of the American Midwest. Born to straight-talking teen mother Roberta (stalwart, moving Grace Gummer), Mary Page herself becomes a married teen mother who finds a job she loves as an accountant. Traversing the 1980s and ’90s, she works her way through a range of sometimes clueless decisions, including affairs with strangers and co-workers, plus lots of drinking. Through it all, you love her effort to find her place and find her voice.
The Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Letts starts the story of his title character in early middle age. Mary Page (witty, calm Susan Pourfar) is 40, having one of those talks with her two children that would feel saccharine, self-serving and uncomfortable in the hands of many playwrights. Here, we’re presented with a delicate, human-scale scene — and clarity. Mary Page and the unseen father of her children are divorcing. They’ll move from Dayton, OH, to Lexington, KY, for her new accounting job. Teenage Wendy (delightfully self-centered Kayli Carter) balks at moving before finishing high school, while pre-adolescent son Louis (Ryan Foust) barely tracks the event. We worry about all of them as we start our journey with this practical, no-nonsense, loving woman.
The set, by Laura Jellinek, is a wash of tiles in a swoop of a playing surface that cuts the stage horizontally into two playing levels. Set and set-piece surprises emerge as needed: stairs or louvered slats to represent a far upstage window; a dorm-room bed; a set of furniture that rolls in on casters; a crib.
Aided by Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design, Jellinek’s beautiful, sparse set is utilized most powerfully, but tenderly, to illuminate a scene that could have been the most horrific of the play. Mary Page is an infant, and Gummer’s Roberta can’t get her veteran husband, Ed (a terrifyingly damaged Nick Dillenburg), to respond to her questions about his postwar pain. When Roberta leaves him alone with Mary Page for an evening, we’re on edge: we expect to witness some expression of Ed’s unresolved rage. Instead, Letts crafts a father-daughter lullaby in which he comforts his crying daughter. We’re gifted in this unexpected moment a side of Ed that Roberta may never have seen. When Roberta is asked by 12-year old Mary Page (sweet Mia Sinclair Jenness) to critique the version of “Tammy” she’s preparing for a talent show, Roberta doesn’t hold back. Mary Page cannot sing well, and Roberta tells the truth. We feel the sting, and also see from where Mary Page developed her commitment to honesty with love.
Letts’ heroine tries to live her life as honestly as she can and to figure out what is true. As a 19-year-old college student, Mary Page (stalwart, proto-feminist Emma Geer) talks about boys and the marriage proposal she rebuffs, confusing her roommates. As a young working mother, Mary Page (frustrated, unapologetic Tatiana Maslany) resists confronting her choices, including affairs and a long-ago abortion, with her patient but persistent shrink, called Shrink (Marcia Debonis), and one of her lovers. Fifty-year old Mary Page (stunning, insistent Kellie Overbey) explains to her second husband, Ray (David Aaron Baker), that she must take responsibility for her own actions. At 59 and older, three-time bride Mary Page (quietly humorous, huge-hearted Blair Brown) cuddles with her husband, Andy (Brian Kerwin), and shares her life’s wisdom with a nurse and a dry cleaner.
In an extended scene between Overbey’s Mary Page and Baker’s Ray, he attempts to shame her into caring more about him than her own clearly articulated plans, asking her to behave differently, feel differently, attend to his needs rather than her own. She explodes:
Don’t tell me how I feel! You don’t know how I feel! You don’t know anything about the way I feel!
This reduces the temperature in the room. And in Mary Page’s assertion of her own power, the moment steals the show.
Another scene is a quiet close second. With her Shrink, we focus on Mary Page’s belief in the truth, her fear of never finding love with another human, and her feeling of being trapped by acting out, rather than embodying, her own life. “I’ve never once, not once in my life, had sex because of lust,” she admits. “The only reason I’ve ever had sex is shame, guilt, power, attention.” I gasped when I first read that line in the script some months ago; in performance, I gasped once again at the bull’s-eye aim of this observation and how it captures the tragedy of a woman who builds a persona rather than living a life. She goes on:
No one is ever going to see me. Sonny and the kids are never going to see me. I’m not the person I am. I’m just acting like a person who is a wife and a mother. I know what that means, I know the levers to pull to be that person.
Director Lila Neugebauer elegantly choreographs movement in, around and through the scenes of this tone poem of a play. This is deeply feminist, personal storytelling, with an imperfect, fascinating character who doesn’t yield her story to anyone else. On the page, the play is haunting. On stage, from direction to design to each of the polished actors, it offers a harrowing but human world — and the accumulated impact of every Mary Page.