The latest from Tracy Letts and Anna D. Shapiro is a captivating portrait of an ordinary life.
At one point in Tracy Letts’s portrait of an average woman’s not-so-easy life, late in the non-linear telling but only midway through her journey, Mary Page Marlowe takes a moment in the middle of a difficult situation to praise her college-age daughter for her headstrong independence. “That hasn’t always been easy for us,” Mary Page adds. “Who’s ‘us’?” her daughter replies.
The us, one might surmise, is the many women who make up Letts's title character, portrayed in this engaging new work by six actresses of varying ages in an episodic, out-of-order snapshot of a life. They range from teenage Caroline Heffernan to Tony winner Blair Brown; in their intervening years, Mary Page is played by Annie Munch, Carrie Coon, Rebecca Spence and Laura T. Fisher as we’re allowed to piece together the details of the character’s often frustrating, sometimes tragic but apparently ultimately fulfilling existence.
Mary Page grows up in Dayton, Ohio, and ends up in Lexington, Kentucky, becoming a CPA, a mother and a wife three times along the way. She also finds herself coming to believe she has little control over the forces that mold her, as Coon makes explicit in a midpoint scene depicting an appointment with a psychiatrist (Kirsten Fitzgerald). This thematic point gets hammered home a bit hard by Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro. In a vignette set during Mary Page’s college years, her roommate gives her a tarot card reading while another friend emphasizes that her teasing can’t change the cards once they’re dealt; later in the play, 12-year-old Mary Page (Heffernan) bristles at her mother’s encouragement to sing “Que Sera Sera” at a school assembly.
Both Letts’s script and Shapiro’s staging are smartly constructed and ultimately quite moving, though one might quibble with the inefficiency of Letts’s casting requirements and their effect on his play’s future life. The multiple Mary Pages are necessary for the concept, but all told only five members of the 18-actor cast appear in more than a single scene. Good on Steppenwolf for being able to pay actors the caliber of Sandra Marquez, Gary Wilmes and Keith Gallagher for 10 minutes of work eight times a week, but one can easily see ways to cut down the cast size in order to keep Mary Page turning.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission.