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Amazing Grace: “Mary Jane” reviewed

Sometimes quietude can feel louder than screams. Maybe that’s why Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane has lingered in the mind for so long. I first had the privilege of seeing her show seven years ago, when it premiered at Yale Rep with Emily Donohoe in the title role. I then saw it when it moved Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop a few months later with Carrie Coon. And six years and one public health crisis later, it has now opened on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, again with a new leading lady – Rachel McAdams, making an assured Broadway debut.

And it continues to linger in the mind.

No, McAdams almost never raises her voice in the play. She doesn’t have to. Her character’s situation more than holds our attention. Mary Jane is a single mother living in Queens dealing with perhaps every parent’s nightmare: a child with a catastrophic illness. Her son, Alex, was born with cerebral palsy, in addition to a seizure disorder, lung disease, and a paralyzed vocal cord. (The play is no doubt influenced by real life: Herzog herself wrote the play while caring for her own chronically ill daughter, who tragically passed away from had nemaline myopathy, a muscular condition, last year). Alex himself is sometimes heard but never seen, spending most of the show being cared for in an offstage bedroom (Leah Gelpe did the sound). Through a series of levelheaded exchanges, Mary Jane tells us that Alex’s father is no longer in the picture and that a family friend has hired her to be an administrative assistant to cover the health insurance – a role of which Alex’s constant care is already testing the seams.

To be sure, the focus of the play is not maudlin nor exploitative. Mary Jane is about a community of caregivers and helpers that arise when in dire need – the people you meet when you need them the most, and the people you pray that you’ll never actually need. In addition to Mary Jane, Herzog’s play features eight supporting characters played by four women, each double cast in ways that mirror one another: There are medical professionals like home nurse Sherry and Dr. Toros (April Matthis, excellent),  mothers of disabled children Brianne and Chaya (Susan Pourfar), ancillary supporters like Sherry’s daughter Amelia and music therapist Kat (Lily Santiago), and assistants like building supervisor Ruthie and new Buddhist hospital chaplain Tenkei (Brenda Wehle). Disparate though they may be, the characters share at least one unifying bond. They all take great pride in the work that they do and are determined to do it well.

Herzog, with veteran director Anne Kauffman, never focuses on the crisis at hand but on empathy and grace. Adams’ Mary Jane is not bitter or a martyr, and is genuinely interested in learning about the other women she encounters while dealing, with a no-nonsense approach, to Alex’s care. McAdams’s take on the role is also dead-on – one believes that Mary Jane is a squarely average, middle-class city dweller doing the best she can. “One thing you learn,” she says, “is that you can’t get too worked up about every piece of bad news. Because sometimes they’re wrong. A big chunk of the time they’ve been wrong.”

Mary Jane also makes an important statement about special needs children. Mary Jane the woman recounts that after Alex was born, she was told he wouldn’t have long to live; instead of saying goodbye, she tells him “You are wanted, you’re wanted, know that you’re wanted.” (In subtle ways, Herzog’s play has a lot to say about the inadequacy of health care in this country.) Time moves on for the audience in an unclear way, as it does for Mary Jane; sometimes we don’t even know if minutes or days have gone by. Herzog and Kauffman mine gold from even the most seemingly mundane of gestures: in an early scene, when she’s woken by a nurse in the middle of the night, Mary Jane pauses to admire the way a light-up ladybug toy scatters pinpricks of primary colors over her room.

Mary Jane isn’t just an emotionally triumphant play, though. Physically, it’s a tour de force. At one point, Lael Jellinek’s detailed slide accomplishes a real coup, transforming from Mary Jane’s apartment to another center of care. In some ways, this mid-play transition resembles a descent into the underground. (Ben Stanton’s lighting also provides contrast during this shift.)

But it’s McAdams, guileless and free as Mary Jane, sitting still as the world spins uncontrollably around her, glued to her love for Alex, that you’ll remember most. She rings loud and clear.

Mary Jane
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre