Mary Page Marlowe, the woman at the center of Tracy Letts’s new play that bears her name, is in many ways a typical middle-class white American woman: from the first generation where it was normal for middle-class women to work outside the home, she becomes a CPA, marries, has two children, gets divorced, marries again, goes to therapy, has some issues with drinking. The play presents her at a series of moments in her life, told out of order but covering the entire span, presenting her life almost as a puzzle to be solved (a conceit that didn’t entirely work for me). Across the seventy-year timespan of the play (beginning with her infancy, when the marriage of her parents, played by Grace Gummer and Nick Dillenburg, starts to fray), Mary Page is played by six different actress (all of them stellar), with both emotional throughlines and notable transformations.
From a fragile, needy adolescent (Mia Sinclair Jenness), exhorted by her mother to buck up, she becomes a more emotionally contained college student (Emma Geer), who has unconventional dreams and aspirations, refusing a marriage proposal. (We never see her parents again after she reaches college age.) Still, by age 27 (Tatiana Maslany, who brings a tightly controlled, inchoate dissatisfaction to the part that is picked up and intensified by the next two generations of Mary Page), she is married, with two young kids (Kayli Carter and Ryan Foust)—a marriage that ends before the first scene presented in the play, where a 40-year-old Mary Page (Susan Pourfar, who extends Maslany’s incipient anger into a wits’-end brittleness that will fully develop into despair and rage in the 50-year-old Mary Page—played by Kellie Overbey, slightly wasted in one of the play’s least successful scenes) tells her adolescent kids about her impending divorce. And on we go, through some startling losses, to the older, wiser, and finally declining Mary Page (Blair Brown, whose hard-won wisdom finally allows her to relax, somewhat, into peace).
Director Lila Neugebauer stages the action on a set of parallel planes, giving the Mary Page of each scene a chance to subtly acknowledge what’s coming next (or what came before in the time sequence), but also underscoring the discontinuities between the stages here. We don’t see what’s in the gaps; it’s not always easy to follow the character’s progression from point to point until much later.
The story drops in at specific moments in Mary Page’s life, with gaps of five years, sometimes more, in between (Kaye Voyce’s period-precise costumes are critical to helping follow the narrative and place the segments relative to one another in time), and those absent moments are as crucial to the play as the ones we do see, because in most of those gaps lies a shattering disappointment: giving up on dreams of an independent life; broken relationships with her children and her various partners; great losses. We see the consequences and reactions to those disappointments, though: the way she acts out her unhappiness, going to therapy and having an affair with her married boss (Gary Wilmes, who plays a charming sleazeball better than just about anyone); or her adolescent son’s refusal to remain living with her a few years post-divorce.
Told out of order, the segments seem to form a puzzle, but not a very complicated one once you put them all together; the manner of storytelling turns events that are ordinary but painful into secrets withheld and revealed (from us, but not from the characters). For example, we see Mary Page (Blair Brown at this point), with her then-husband, Andy (Brian Kerwin), receive news that seems to lift an enormous weight from her shoulders, then several scenes later comes the incident that began that arc, lowering the weight onto her. Similarly, we see intimations from an older Mary Page that there has been some sort of rupture in her relationship with her children, and then that loop is closed in the play’s final moments. This air of mystery, of puzzle-solving, sometimes does a disservice to the careful character work all the actors are doing, shifting focus to what events happened in this person’s life rather than who she is, and who are the people around her (almost all of whom are lightly sketched when put against the literal multitudes which comprise Mary Page).
Mary Page frequently claims to be out of touch with her emotions, moving through life without making choices, buffeted by the fates (this point is most clearly articulated by Maslany, as an early-thirties Mary Page expresses her frustrations in, and with, therapy). But for a character who isn’t nominally in touch with her emotions, Letts often makes her remarkably articulate and precise about her inner self and her intentions; an awful lot of the play is Mary Page telling an interlocutor just how she feels, or just what she intends to do, and there are times I think the piece would be more powerful if it allowed some of its moments to be more oblique. On the other hand, the tragedy of Mary Page lies in how few of those intentions, those aspirations, actually come to pass. The play’s final scene shows Brown, the late-in-life Mary Page, in a conversation of no particular importance in a dry-cleaner, as a woman enjoying a simple human encounter. It’s a welcome moment of lightness and grace, and it shows a woman who has settled into an acceptance of the course of her life, whether her choices were made consciously, forced upon her, or drifted into.
Mary Page Marlowe runs to August 19, 2018. More production info can be found here.