There is both an enveloping and all-too-short dramatic aspect to Mary Page Marlowe, a play by the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts that evokes the life of one woman in totality, even if the story of that life is not told in totality.
You want more, to know more, of the eponymous title character, but Mary Page Marlowe—first performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2016—aims for something more teasing and mysterious.
The play, beautifully written but strangely staged for its New York premiere at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, is intermissionless and 90 minutes long.
Mary’s life unfurls in unchronological, episodic glimpses. She is played by six actresses: at age 12 by Mia Sinclair Jenness, at 19 by Emma Geer, at 27 and 36 by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, at 40 and 44 by Susan Pourfar, at 50 by Kellie Overbey, and at 59, 63, and 69 by Blair Brown. We even meet her as a glancingly seen crying baby.
It’s the fabric of a life that Letts brilliantly stitches in front of us; it’s one of those plays where, when I looked around, more than one person was sitting, leaning forward, watching intently. You want to get closer, know more, all the way through.
The play begins with “Mary Page” as a mother, in a diner with her two children, Wendy and Louis, as she tries to explain to them what divorce from their father will mean. Kayli Carter as Wendy is a sulking early standout, bemoaning the likely move from Ohio to Kentucky; Ryan Foust as Louis is younger, quieter, and just wants his mother to be all right.
How does Mary Page seem on first glance? Harried, clearly, unsure, but focused and determined. She’s not a huggy mom. She’s funny, sharp, and caring. She loves her children, but she also has a harsh new life to negotiate somehow.
You sense that things will and won’t be all right for “Mary Page.” Her own parents were unhappy; he drinks and disregards her, she feels let down and frustrated. We even see Mary, as a 12 year-old-girl played with a watchful wariness by Jenness, try to pacify and work around her alcoholic and critical mother, Roberta (Grace Gummer). The alcohol that is the mother’s crutch becomes the same, with terrible results, for her daughter.
Absence is an early theme, and so is self-reliance. Geer’s incarnation of her as a student continues Jenness’ portrayal as an independent-minded person wanting to craft her own life and destiny. She does not want to marry the man people expect her to, and screw what the tarot cards say in a dorm-room night in with her two friends. Maslany plays her as a young woman having sex with her married boss; sex on her own terms, much to his sexist bafflement.
Then at 36, Maslany is facing off with her therapist, insisting, “I am unexceptional.” This is what Letts is confronting most directly: the exceptionalism, or singularity at least, of what may seem like an unexceptional life. That person in front of you at the dry cleaner’s, Letts seems to be saying, that anonymous Mary Page Marlowe, everyone around us, us; we are brimful of unknowable life.
In Mary Page, we see early exercisings of control and self-determination before the other, more insurmountable walls of life begin to close in. We know, because of the tricky structure of Letts’ writing, that a tragedy of some kind must have occurred. At 44, in Pourfar’s raw Mary Page, we see the outline of that tragedy and the disconnects in family and purpose mounting in gravity around her.
The impact of that tragedy creates another tragedy that is gutturally realized in Overbey’s show-anchoring incarnation of Mary Page at 50.
Her howl, her anguish, the suddenly obvious effects of the accumulations of hurts and the shucking off and then taking on of responsibility, is wrenchingly written and performed at this critical moment in the character’s life. A brilliant match for Overbey, Ray (David Aaron Baker) is Mary Page’s desperate, shocked, floundering, exhausted husband at that moment in a household of shattered nerves.
The later Marys are still not easy people to define, but there is some recognition of who she is and what her life means for good and ill. Refreshingly, Letts does not try to make Mary Page an everywoman character. She is not painted as naïve or too knowing, she is neither too suburban nor too metropolitan. She is sharp and soft, knowing and in some kinds of denial. She has a fundamental, and life-saving, command of herself.
The subsidiary characters as these flashes of a life play out are just as cleverly realized and played by a superb supporting cast. Mary settles down with a third husband, Andy (Brian Kerwin), to watch House, M.D. (and just how do these damn complicated TV remotes work nowadays?).
A nurse (Maria Elena Ramirez) we meet in the last stretch of Mary Page’s life is, like Mary Page, written against type—not over-sympathetic, not under-sympathetic, but circumspect, curious, and respectful.
The quality of Letts’ writing comes in the zeroing in on specifics to reveal the greater contours of Mary Page’s character. The frustration watching the play is in the bittiness and static feel of the staging.
Components of Laura Jellinek’s staging come in and come off in dulling, mechanized fashion. The set is two-tiered and so bits of it are empty and slightly lost until they are used. These odd design and directorial choices detract from the writing and performances.
But director Lila Neugebauer (whose packed recent CV of The Wolves, At Home at the Zoo, Everybody, and The Antipodes showed differently distinctive commands of innovative staging) has one visual trick, a gathering of the Mary Pages near the end, which makes absolute dramatic sense.
The massing of this ghostly chorus underscores that we have observed the patchwork story of a life: imperfect, incomplete, but a palimpsest of events and emotions, one person who is different people; a collision of identities within one identity. It is a life of points of departure and points of reckoning, dotted with drama and not-drama, soft and hard transitions, and bits of time that, while not overtly packed with incident, are still formative.
How did Mary Page really get from there to there, you wonder at some moments. Letts very deliberately isn’t telling. Rather than a flaw, it is a mark of the brilliance of his writing—and its clever demand on our own watching imaginations.
Mary Page Marlowe is at the Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York City, until Aug. 12. Book here.