Finding Mary Jane

by Clare Arena Haden (Mary Jane)

I was drawn in by Amy Herzog’s words the moment I started reading Mary Jane. I think my first reaction was, “Wow. This is so real. Too real.” In preparation of the first day of rehearsal, I began reading the play every day about 3 months out. I had conversations with friends and family about their own experiences with chronically sick children. Thanks to YouTube, there was an abundance of videos explaining how to use a G-Tube, what to do during a seizure, suction machines, oxygen on babies, all the equipment needed for toddlers with cerebral palsy, etc. Actress and friend Carrie Coon also generously shared some resources that she found useful when working on the original, Off-Broadway role; two of them being Eliza Factor’s novel Strange Beauty: A Portrait of My Son and the haunting poetry of Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda. Immersing myself in this world filled me with every emotion all at once: pain, joy, gratitude, frustration, and every growing empathy.

Once in the room with my director, Mary MacDonald Kerr, my stage manager, Sarah Deming-Henes, and our amazing cast of women, designers, and crew, then my focus shifted to them. Being present with them, allowing their guidance to steer me, and using Amy’s words as the anchor would shape how Mary Jane lived and breathed in this story. All I could do was bring all of myself to it and be open to what everyone so generously gave me during the process. Mary Jane’s son, Alex, was with me every step of the way. As my father suggested after seeing opening night, Alex should be listed as a character in the playbill being played by the cast. He said his presence was palpable on stage every moment.

I have a son, Ben. He’s almost seven and he's effervescent. He loves nature and creating art. When you become a mother, it changes you profoundly. I never knew I could love something so deeply and profoundly.

This also brings with it a feeling of acute terror in the awesome responsibility of doing everything in my power to keep him alive and safe, shaping his life and guiding him along the way for whatever precious time I am given on this earth as his mother. The experience turned my world upside down and back again. Mary Jane has taught me so much. I have never been more honored to walk in someone else’s shoes, and have never been more grateful I get to take them off after each performance and go home to my healthy son.

I hope audiences will appreciate this journey that so many of us may never fully comprehend, but that expands our empathy and is taken with us in our daily lives.