As regular viewers of Fargo and The Leftovers know, Carrie Coon has quickly established herself as an uncommonly gifted actress, conveying the broadest spectrum of emotions without flourish or embellishment. Theatergoers will recall the same quality from her Tony-nominated performance as the distaff half of a visiting couple ensnared in an alcohol-fueled evening of “Get the Guests” in the most recent Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and, earlier, as a researcher in Melissa James Gibson’s Placebo, at Playwrights Horizons).
And yet her work in the title role of Amy Herzog’s slow burner of a play, Mary Jane, which opened tonight at the New York Theatre Workshop, coils, quietly and almost imperceptibly, to a climax that, like the death of a loved one, strips us to the core, no matter how well-prepared we think we are.
Mary Jane is the single mother of two-and-a-half year old Alex, sheltered in a room behind the set we see and known only to us through the alarms that go off when a muscular or neurological disturbance jars his limited consciousness. (The superbly detailed set and lighting are by Laura Jellinek and Japhy Weideman, respectively.) Born at 25 weeks and four days, Alex suffers from cerebral palsy and other maladies that, at the play’s opening, have brought on increasingly frequent and intense seizures. They also have resulted in the departure of his father, about whom Mary Jane says, “I hope he finds some peace.” She really says that.
Indeed, there are no men in Mary Jane. Its 90 minutes are given over to a series of dialogues between a mother struggling against all odds to retain her humanity and her son’s agency, with: her super (Brenda Wehle, no-nonsense and compassionate); Alex’s main care-giver (Liza Colón-Zayas, no-nonsense, compassionate and formidable); the care-giver’s niece (Danaya Esperanza, vibrant and amazed); and a Facebook friend newly going through a similar experience (Susan Pourfer, barely controlled panic).
In later scenes, the actresses will play Mary Jane’s doctor, nurse, a music therapist and an observant Jewish mother also dealing with and Alex-type crisis. Herzog gives each of them an elegantly concise backstory, which her director, Anne Kauffman, elicits with the same sensitivity and stubborn realism she brought to Herzog’s earlier play, Belleville. I say “stubborn,” because Mary Jane threatens to be campaigning for sainthood, but every time she approaches a threshold, playwright and director conspire brilliantly to remind us how forcefully human she is.
In one of many pitch-perfect scenes, Mary Jane expresses concern over the number of X-rays Alex is being exposed to while being treated for pneumonia. The doctor (Colón-Zayas, again), responds,
“The radiation you get from a daily x-ray – that wouldn’t have implications, and I’m saying at the earliest, okay? – for 20, 30 years. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but – let’s just say that’s a very long time.”
The expression that, darkening like an ineluctable shadow, crosses Mary Jane’s face – well, Carrie Coons’ face – as the doctor’s point registers transformed my experience of Mary Jane from empathic observer to wordless participant in this resilient young mother’s journey through despair to something, not sainthood, like epiphany. Where we all ended up was a revelation.
IN BRIEF: Two more important plays opened recently off-Broadway. The Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea is presenting On the Shore of the Wide World, by Simon Stephens, the estimable playwright whose Heisenberg was a highlight of last season and whose adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, seen on Broadway, was miraculous. Artistic director Neil Pepe’s production of this earlier work, about three generations of an English family coping with a tragedy that is only glancingly mentioned, is meticulous and the cast is flawless. But it’s not a top-drawer work, and it left me wondering – especially as I struggled through the thicket of impenetrable accents on display – what compelled the Atlantic to present it.
…MCC Theater, at the Lucille Lortel in Greenwich Village, is presenting Philip Dawkins’ Charm, based on a memoir by Miss Gloria Allen, a transgender woman who teaches an etiquette class to transgender teenagers in an inner city Chicago school. Like Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Allen – here called Mama Darleena Andrews – is resolute in her conviction that excellent form opens the door to deeper substance. And like Miss Jean Brodie, that conviction also takes her into some unpleasant personal territory. The students, portrayed with verve by a transgender cast, all get their big, if predictable, moments to shine. Forgive me if they reminded me too frequently of Mr. Kotter’s Sweathogs, crude and amiably redeemable. Charm is rough-hewn but gives voice to a group we need to hear more from.