Are there just too many plays about death? Hearing this repeated complaint amongst the crowd exiting Peace for Mary Frances, I wondered how fair it was. Of course, art is often about death on some level – so is the better question, is theater overly concerned with the process of dying? Certainly, I can think of several recent works that delved into it: Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; A Life, by Adam Bock; Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno; and Animal Wisdom, by Heather Christian, to name a few. Even on Broadway right now, Nathan Lane is offering a brutally slow-motion death in Angels in America, the most unflinching depiction of a body’s decay that I’ve seen.
So the topic is ever-present, if always in different forms. While death fatigue is understandable at this point, few recent works have taken the approach of Lily Thorne’s moving Mary Frances, now receiving its world premiere from The New Group (at the Pershing Square Signature Center). The premise – splintered family gathers for the passing of a matriarch – is not novel. But Thorne’s painstaking approach feels unique. Mary Frances tracks a kind of death that is less typically found in art: planned, scheduled, and mundane in its tragedy.
Lois Smith is Mary Frances, the solid center of a long-broken family. Ninety years old and in great pain, she has made the decision to die peacefully at home. Her daughter, Alice (J. Smith-Cameron) has come up from the city to help. Younger daughter Fanny (Johanna Day) is nearer, but a sometimes unstable recovering drug addict. As the two spar over their mother’s path to death, other family members float in and out. Mary’s son Eddie (Paul Lazar), is barely present and in denial; while Alice’s two daughters, Helen and Rosie (Heather Burns & Natalie Gold), are on hand, if sometimes occupied with their own troubles.
Mary Frances ultimately decides to go into hospice care. In trying to keep her as comfortable as possible in her final days, the family is assisted by a nurse (Mia Katigbak) and a psychologist (Brian Miskell). These supporting characters set Thorne’s tone more than any others, concerned as they are with the moment-by-moment experience of death management. Early on, the psychologist impassively predicts how the family’s tensions will worsen as their mother deteriorates. Events follow pretty much exactly as he lays out, but for the timing. You see, Mary Frances takes quite a while to die.
The hospice process is anathema to drama. It’s mostly a waiting game, with little room for surprises. Thorne and director Lila Neugebauer don’t try to push against this; instead, they embrace the painful wait. Drug schedules are closely detailed, as are protocols for the moment of death. As Mary Frances fades in and out, the action moves in fits and spurts. Deeply held resentments are hashed out in one scene and forgotten by the next. Outside of Mary Frances’ lucid moments, the family seems in a daze. Bodies moves through the house in a dreamlike manner.
Neugebauer’s expert direction sets this hazy tone, then rarely lets up on it. Conflicts that spring up are suddenly just as quickly forgotten. At one point, Alice fears her sister will turn violent, a notion that feels absurd and which Alice herself soon forgets. Similarly, a suggestion that Eddie has mismanaged his mother’s finances is floated, but then left to dangle. The family is rarely on stage all at once and disconnected from each other when they are. The chaos of a scattered, broken family lives deep in Thorne’s dramaturgy.
Eddie and his mother share the play’s most affecting dynamic. None of Thorne’s self-obsessed characters are particularly likable, but Eddie, in particular, comes across as an ass. He is disengaged from his sisters, naive to his mother’s condition and (it is suggested) not much of a lawyer. But for no clear reason, Eddie is Mary France’s favorite. She is calmer in his presence, and defends him without a thought. Lazar’s performance is one of the coldest I’ve seen on stage, and offers no reason to like this self-obsessed, unimpressive man. But when he and Mary Frances share a room, an unconditional love fills it. Family is incomprehensible, and Thorne hits on that most movingly here.
Though she does radiate love, Smith’s strongest work comes in showing us Mary Frances’ hard edge. Like many a kindly grandmother, she was a scarier figure in her younger years. At times, that tougher edge flashes through the gentle exterior of Smith’s careful performance. In Smith’s strongest scene, a bed-ridden Mary Frances rises suddenly, crosses the room and opens a window – all to yell at her obstinate daughter, standing out in the driveway. It’s a superhuman act, but also an utterly ordinary one. “I’m not a fighter,” Mary Frances often repeats, but Smith’s understated work tells a much different story.
The play’s biggest risk comes in its final section. As Mary Frances’ exit proves slower than expected, the family splinters before death even arrives. A home healthcare aide (Melle Powers) takes over. The warmth of the home fades. In dramatic terms, these final scenes feel all wrong. Thorne provides no reconciliation, nor even a final blowout – just a sad stumbling to the end. That is wholly unsatisfying for an audience, but it’s in keeping with Thorne’s approach from page one. This is not the ending Mary Frances deserves.
We have a medical process for dying, one Thorne lays out meticulously from page one. It’s no coincidence that as the process of Mary’s death grows more careful, her family’s behavior only worsens. We can’t possibly place rules and a schedule on something so tragic – and yet we do. Mary has accepted that contradiction, but her family cannot. That’s the sad fact of this very sad play.
Peace for Mary Frances runs to June 17, 2018. More production info can be found here.