FTC's "Mary Jane" Explores the Hardships of Parenting a Desperately Ill Child
In a 2017 interview, prior to the opening of her new play Mary Jane at the Yale Repertory Theatre, playwright Amy Herzog compared her story of a mother struggling to care for a critically ill child to the biblical story of Job. But instead of a parable about enduring extreme suffering through faith that is eventually rewarded, Herzog’s main character faces, “calamities that seem to pile on without purpose or cumulative meaning.”
This is precisely the drama that unfolds in Forward Theater Company’s production, which runs in The Playhouse at Overture through September 29. An exceptional cast of four women, led by FTC Advisory Company member Clare Arena Haden, chronicles the slow descent of an ordinary mom from cautious optimism and resilience in the face of her young son’s overwhelming medical issues, to an utterly exhausted caregiver whose own body is no longer able to function.
Directed with a sure and gentle hand by Mary MacDonald Kerr, the play unfolds in a series of realistic scenes that each feel like snapshots of a typical day in the last few months of Mary Jane’s parenting odyssey. This journey began with the delivery of her son Alex almost four months early. In the subsequent years that medical technology has kept this severely premature baby alive, Alex’s medical needs have scared away Mary Jane’s husband, taken over her tiny Queens apartment with suction machines, oxygen tanks and tubes, and pushed her out of her bedroom and onto the couch. Beeping monitors have also robbed her of ever getting a full night’s sleep, put her job in jeopardy and isolated her in increasingly artificial environments. Her only companions are her building’s super, those who care for her child, and fellow parents who cope by depending on family, their faith, their church community or other moms of desperately ill kids.
Mary Jane (the heart-wrenching Haden) doesn’t have any of these resources. She relies instead on her own mental, emotional and physical strength; her ability to control her environment; and her hyper-focus on Alex at the expense of all else. Her resolve feels superhuman at the top of the play, but as bad news compounds, Haden allows cracks to appear in her character — her face falls while on the phone with Alex’s neurologist. Her nerves fray as she tries to remember which questions she has for the doctor. Her intuitive thankfulness strains to find the blessing in an extra box of breakfast cereal and the idea that at least she doesn’t have six other children at home, like a woman she meets in the pediatric intensive care lounge. Haden’s complex, nuanced performance makes Mary Jane work as a character study instead of a plot driven play.
Indeed, the arc of the drama is revealed in the play’s first scene. While making conversation and trying to fix a plugged up sink, the building manager Ruthie (a delightfully authentic Caron Buinis) warns Mary Jane that the trauma we experience never goes away, it continues to live in the cells of our bodies. This foreshadowing confirms the audience’s suspicions immediately: Mary Jane can’t make the best of things indefinitely, deferring her own needs to all those around her.
In this world peopled only by women (professional and family caregivers are most often female, according to the author) every character is trying to keep it together while facing challenges that range from, “how do I fit in with kids at college?” (from the genuine and promising young actress Nadja Simmonds), to “how do I succeed at this new job?” (Buinis, as a novice Buddhist nun), “how do I communicate realistically but compassionately with this sick child’s mother?” (Tosha Freeman, refreshingly direct in both nurse and doctor roles) to “how do I navigate a healthcare system that seems determined to keep children with special needs from getting the care, equipment and services they are entitled to?” (Samara Frame, as the brittle, shell-shocked mom). There are no easy answers for any of them, just as there are no easy responses to the larger questions the play brings up, of medical ethics, the shortcomings of the current health insurance system, and the rhetorical, “why do bad things happen to good people?”
Staging is simple and mostly spare, which allows the audience to concentrate on Alex’s precarious breathing, through sounds of medical equipment and monitors beeping, and Mary Jane’s response. A bleak color palette for both her crummy apartment and the sterile hospital are interrupted by brightly colored squares that cover the stage floor. (Scenic design by Lisa Schlenker.) These mirror the bright lights of an artificial aquarium that seems to calm the silent toddler Alex.
The vibrant colors of the toy also soothe Mary Jane late one night, much like the colorful auras she is surrounded with when a migraine strikes. Decidedly not the visions of a religious saint, she still manages to marvel at the fractals that are closing in on her even as darkness and pain are literally approaching. At times like these, Mary Jane’s spirit seems heroic. But if there is a message to the play, it’s that suffering — whether it has a larger purpose or not — will eventually take an enormous toll.