Mary Jane

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Photo: Matthew Murphy Review
Seemingly designed as both testament to the human spirt and an examination of the status of women in today’s society, Amy Herzog’s autobiographically-inspired play “Mary Jane,” now making its overdue Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is an intelligent yet understated work that nonetheless almost blunts its own power.

In another writer’s hands, this story of a single mother facing the enormous challenges of dealing with a very sick young child would elicit almost instant sobs from its audience. Instead, Herzog’s rather matter-of-fact approach to the tale stems those baser impulses, leaving one more inclined to think than feel.

Structured as series of one-on-one scenes, the play initially paints Mary Jane – played here with surprising sunniness by Rachel McAdams-- as a woman with a strong head on her shoulders, one that allows her to matter-of-factly deal with the severe illness facing her (never-seen) son Alex, who seems “lucky” to have even survived for two years.

In the first half of the one-act play (it’s really two short acts, but done without an intermission), we sit in Mary Jane’s apartment (the deceptively simple set is by the great Lael Jellinek) as she chats with a variety of women: her straightforward apartment superintendent, a take-charge home nurse and her sweet college-aged niece, and another mom with an ill child with whom Mary Jane has kindly chosen to share her hard-earned wisdom. These conversations, though smartly written and having the keen sense of verisimilitude, nonetheless don’t quite add up to very much, making us wonder if we’ll feel much of anything.

However, when Alex is suddenly rushed to the hospital in the show’s second half, the story gains some urgency, especially as the boy’s condition worsens. Mary Jane begins to transform before our eyes, and we finally see not only the pain and anger she has struggled so hard to control, but the fact that she has never allowed herself to face the gravity of her situation. Fortunately, McAdams (in her first-ever Broadway outing) proves up to this daunting task.

In keeping with Herzog’s schemata, more one-on-one encounters ensue during this section, including Mary Jane speaking with assorted, well-meaning hospital personnel, the Orthodox Jewish mother of another ill child, and an elderly Buddhist nun who is aware there are no easy answers to be had from religion. These discussions seem somehow both less authentic yet far more meaningful.

Under Anne Kaufmann’s straightforward direction, and aided by Brenda Abbandandolo’s simple but effective costuming, four excellent actresses -- April Matthis, Susan Pourfar, Lily Santiago, and Brenda Wehle -- handle all the supporting parts with true aplomb, creating distinct characterizations in mere minutes. (Pourfar and Wehle also appeared in the play’s 2016 Off-Broadway debut at New York Theatre Workshop.)

The play’s actual ending is up for interpretation. Nonetheless, Herzog leaves us with a delicate understanding that, whether we are the mother of a sick child, a struggling college student or an overworked hospital employee, life is what we choose to make of it.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/23/2024
Closing 6/30/2024

Theatre Info
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036