“Mary Jane” Tackles Parenthood

Theater and the City is a column of student-written reviews in the ENGL 400 class taught by Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham.

This week’s entry is by Chloe Ludlow.

I’m sure we can all remember a point in our childhood when we got hurt, that time we got sick for just a little bit too long, that time we needed to go to the hospital for a surgery our mom promised “wasn’t all that bad”. Mothers are able to make us feel better in the stickiest of situations, but what about when a band-aid isn’t enough? What about when that surgery doesn’t work? What about when mom can’t make it all better?

The New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane”, directed by Anne Kauffmann, tells the story of Mary Jane, a charismatically optimistic woman who is the single mother to two-year-old Alex. Alex suffers from cerebral palsy after being born three months premature, making him unable to eat, hold his head up, or speak. Due to Alex’s physical complications, the doctors are unsure just how much of his surroundings Alex understands. Regardless, Mary Jane is relentless in offering Alex any bit of happiness she can. Since Alex’s birth, Mary Jane is thrown into a whirlwind of hospitals and live-in nurses making her fluent in the jargon of medical tests, prescriptions, and insurance premiums, and of course, she’s trying to smile the entire time.

This life-like play happens at a slow pace that allows the audience to absorb every move the actors make, making a show with few events feel like something we are not watching for entertainment, but living among. The set, designed by Laura Jellinek, offers a painstakingly realistic look into a single mother’s cramped apartment and included beautiful details, including the shadowy night lighting that let the audience see a little bit more into Mary Jane’s quiet life – A life where she can’t go to work or see friends because her life in consumed by the responsibility of caring for a sick child.

I also thought the director’s choice to show Mary Jane eating in so many of the scenes allowed the play to feel more personal. Eating a meal is a task that is shared with friends and family, and there is nothing more lonely than eating alone. Mindlessly eating cereal is more than a meal, it shows that Mary Jane doesn’t have time to cook, it shows that she doesn’t have anyone to eat with, it shows that she isn’t thinking about what she is consuming. This shifted the audience’s attention to the small everyday tasks at hand, as opposed to what would happen a week, or a month from now.

Although she is rarely alone, her helplessness makes any room feel somewhat lonely. The beeping of hospital equipment echoes in the halls of both the hospital set and the apartment, giving the audience a reminder that even when things are calm, we are always far from being okay.

“You are wanted. You are wanted. You are wanted.” What else can you say to a baby that you know you have no idea how to care for? A baby that you know will have an incredibly hard life? A baby that you know you love? “You are wanted.” Even when things get hard, “you are wanted.” Carrie Coon is able to add an enticing amount of nuance and depth to the character of Mary Jane. We not only see Mary Jane as a mother, but as a woman who is confused and frustrated. Her ability to bring clarity and comfort to others almost makes you forget the tragedy of her own story, and the love that she has for her son can be felt in the pit of your stomach with every slightly-stressed word that leaves her lips.

Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane” pulls at the strongest of heartstrings by quietly examining the unwavering strength of a mother’s love. “Mary Jane” is a play for those of us who have been forced to grow up just a little too fast. For those of us who are always looking for light, and for those of us who just want a little bit more time.