Stories of children with chronic health have dominated the news headlines of late. Recently, we’ve seen Jimmy Kimmel’s entreaties to politicians to do the right thing and support healthcare for all, inspired by his own son’s plight. Earlier this year, an experimental treatment for the infant Charlie Gard became a polarizing discussion in the UK and beyond. As the future of health insurance hangs in the balance in the US, Amy Herzog’s poignant new play, Mary Jane, at New York Theatre Workshop, is timely even if it avoids directly debating the issue.
The eponymous heroine Mary Jane (and there is no other word to use for this altruistic character) is the mother of a chronically sick two year-old named Alex. He was born with cerebral palsy and requires 24/7 care. A central device of the play is that we never actually meet Alex. He is either off stage, or represented in a swaddling of blankets and teddy bears in a hospital bed. While we “get to know” the child through Herzog’s lyrical descriptions, the action focuses on his mother’s struggle to get him the best medical treatment she can. Mary Jane is played by a luminous Carrie Coon, recently nominated for an Emmy for her role in Fargo. The single mother and child live in a tiny, cluttered New York apartment portrayed in an elaborately realistic set by Laura Jellinek. Here, Mary Jane must juggle her son’s care with a job and an unreliable cast of care givers and helpers.
In the first act, we witness her veneer of cheerfulness running thin as Alex’s health declines. She is surrounded by people who offer well-meaning advice, including her straight talking super played by Brenda Wehle and an unflappable night nurse played by Liza Colón-Zayas. But we discover that she is the true specialist on her son’s condition when she advises another mother of a sick child, played by Susan Pourfar on the labyrinth of appointments and meetings she will need to navigate to get the right treatment. So far, so tragic. Despite the main character’s determination not to crumble in the face of adversity, this is a heavy play with little respite from grim reality, except for some truly funny one-liners. Some rather over-detailed exposition in the writing and slightly fussy and fiddly direction from Anne Kauffman can give the impression that this is a fly-on-the wall documentary film rather than a play.
In the second act, the action moves to a hospital – the set continues to be very realistic but the drama takes on a more philosophical tone. Mary Jane must continue to battle for every ounce of attention and care her son needs from the medical professionals. She becomes obsessed with securing him some music therapy even though she encounters widespread skepticism that it will benefit her son. At this point, the actors who played the supporting roles in the first act double up with mixed results: Colón-Zayas now plays, somewhat confusingly, the Doctor, while Brenda Wehle does a sensitive turn as a Buddhist monk. Danaya Esperanza, who appeared earlier as a college student now becomes the music therapist. Susan Pourfar does the most impressive double-duty, as a Hasidic Jewish mother of seven children, one of whom is chronically ill. It is heartening to see this minority included in contemporary drama, and the two mothers bond over their tales of other people trying to help.
“Everyone has stuff,” says Mary Jane. “That’s not true,” replies Chaya, the Jewish mother. “I know a lot of people who don’t have any stuff at all.”
These mothers have way more “stuff” than most of us could cope with. They persevere in the face of hideous odds and a health system where empathy is not a priority. The medical staff all address Mary Jane as Mom – an impersonal, realistic and irritating trait that pervades the American health system. The play will resonate with anyone who has ever had to deal with a medical crisis and how the lack of a family or state safety net demands herculean efforts from those who need help the most.