Theater review by Adam Feldman
“Nothing to do except wait,” explains Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) to Amelia (Danaya Esperanza), a college student visiting her small Queens apartment. “I’m glad to have your company.” Mary Jane is a single mother with a severely disabled toddler named Alex; he is running a fever, and Amelia’s aunt Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas), a nurse, is tending to him in the back room. Exactly what they might be waiting for is a question that hangs with gray menace in Amy Herzog’s exquisite and deeply moving Mary Jane: Alex is almost certainly not getting better, and even the best-case scenarios break your heart.
Yet the play does not dwell in helplessness; it’s more interested in how people try to help. In addition to Mary Jane, there are eight other characters onstage. Colón-Zayas and Esperanza reappear as, respectively, a doctor and a music therapist. Brenda Wehle is both Mary Jane’s sturdy superintendent and a Buddhist nun; Susan Pourfar plays two other mothers with disabled children. (The second, a blunt Hasidic woman, adds a welcome dash of comic relief.) There are no villains here, only people doing their best under sometimes crushing circumstances.
All are rendered in lovely detail by Herzog and the five women of the cast, directed by Anne Kauffman with characteristic attention to the importance of offhand nuance. Information is revealed in a steady drip of medical jargon, bureaucratic obstacles and personal history; the moment-to-moment concerns in Mary Jane are often quotidian. (As a friend once advised the title character: “You’ll still have good days and bad days.”) The world of the play is unblinking but not bleak. Herzog shows the strain of Mary Jane’s situation—layered with beautiful reserve by Coon—but she also succeeds in dramatizing kindness, attentiveness, honesty, connection.
At the end of a great theater experience, the audience sometimes leaps into applause. At the performance of Mary Jane I attended, the response was even better. There was a heavy silence before the clapping began: 200 people processing what they had seen and sharing a moment of quiet empathy in the company of strangers, alone together in ten long seconds of dark.
New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Amy Herzog. Directed by Anne Kauffman. With Carrie Coon. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. Through Oct 29.