by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
Midway through Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, the beleaguered title character takes a mental break from caring for her seriously ill child to chat with a young woman who’s now in college. “I used to get high and hike in the mountains,” Mary Jane wistfully says, remembering her own carefree college days. “It was gorgeous . . . seems like a different life.”
Although Mary Jane unfolds in New York City, it can’t get away from nature’s wonders. The opening scene is titled “I’d be better off dancing in a forest.” The titles of the next two scenes feature, respectively, the sun and a ladybug – before concluding with an exhausted Mary Jane imagining that she’s “stargazing” as she stares at the ceiling above her pullout couch. As this image suggests, Mary Jane’s open-ended days belong to an expansive past; Mary Jane now exists in a much more constricted present. By the time we catch up with her, she’s a single mom living in a cramped Queens apartment who also spends weeks at a time in an even smaller hospital room.
Mary Jane sleeps there alongside two-year-old Alex, who has cerebral palsy as well as a seizure disorder and lung disease. Her sleep is intermittent and fretful; half an ear is always cocked for changes in the sound and rhythm of the elaborate machines that keep Alex alive, with their beeps signaling a potentially fatal change in Alex’s precarious condition.
Mary Jane’s long-ago plans to become a teacher are now on hold; she’s hanging on by a thread to her job as an administrative assistant, with a boss who’s increasingly impatient at how many days she’s absent while caring for her son. Mary Jane desperately needs that job because she needs its benefits, in a country where even Obamacare hasn’t made insurance affordable – and where nearly 30 million Americans remain uninsured.
And Mary Jane is in danger of losing her job because the United States is among just a handful of countries in the world that does not provide its citizens with paid parental leave to care for sick and disabled children.
Herself the mother of a young child with a rare muscle disease, Herzog knows what she’s talking about when chronicling the numerous bureaucratic obstacles and micro-inequities impeding Mary Jane’s efforts to care for Alex.
But Mary Jane isn’t a redo of Michael Moore’s devastating film “Sicko” (2007), which masterfully indicts this country’s shamefully inadequate health care system. Herzog is more interested in how someone like Mary Jane nevertheless remains so resilient, staring down all the hardships in her life with remarkable courage, optimism and grace. Rather than throwing herself a pity party, Mary Jane worries that those around her are OK; she’s so empathetic that she’ll be gently teased in this play for unconsciously imitating others’ expressions when they talk.
Herzog tells us that Mary Jane “doesn’t, generally, like to indulge in people hating”; she continually excuses the many people – from Alex’s father to the night nurses who sleep on duty – for letting her down. Preternaturally aware of others’ suffering, she becomes a lucid reflector, illuminating those around her even as her own feelings get lost in the shadows. But as Herzog quietly suggests, Mary Jane also pays a price for standing tall even when she feels small. “I wonder if you have an outlet for expression or if you’re absorbing that all in your body,” her crusty but well-meaning building superintendent tells her in the opening scene.
Or as Hilton Als memorably wrote in his perceptive review of Mary Jane, “her extreme capability is also a way of obscuring her own needs.” Mary Jane has trained herself to expect less of others, even as she demands ever more of herself. Attentive to their needs, she often denies her own. Convinced she stands alone, she’s afraid to be vulnerable and let others in. Difficult as her life already is, she therefore risks making it even harder.
Sisterhood is Powerful
But those others – every one of them a woman – are all around her.
There’s Mary Jane’s building superintendent and a nurse who serves as her ever-reliable wing. A hospital doctor and a music therapist. A shy college student and a Buddhist chaplain. And two more mothers – one an aspiring professional and the other a Hasid who stays home – with similarly sick children. These eight characters are played by four actors, thereby underscoring the many roles every woman must play – while emphasizing the empathy that allows each of these women to see the world from multiple perspectives.
“The reality of the world of sick kids is that it’s mostly women who take jobs in nursing, social work, special education, and therapy,” Herzog said during a 2017 interview, shortly after this play’s world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre.
One might imagine each of these women as embodying unrealized selves existing within Mary Jane; it’s no accident that Herzog has referred to her heroine as an “Everywoman” who contains multitudes. Or, to say the same thing somewhat differently, one might see these eight women as teaching Mary Jane that she is not alone – that there are indeed others in the world who reflect back to her all the many things that she feels and has long tamped down:
Care for others, yes, but also a need to care for herself. Unimaginable and abiding love for her son, but also unacknowledged resentment at the hand she’s been dealt by an inscrutable and seemingly hostile universe. Appreciation for the health care professionals who assist her, but also anger at a healthcare system that continually fails her. Can all these others teach Mary Jane to see that feeling all she does simply makes her human? And to see her place in the constellation of love lighting up the world around her – illuminating the dark with a pattern that helps us make meaning in the void?
Brought to life for us by this talented cast of actors, might this constellation of voices teach us to see past the seeming chasms that separate us from each other, focusing instead on how much we share and all the ways we’re joined?
As one of this play’s most memorable characters asks Mary Jane – and, implicitly, every one of us – “can you still see,” despite all the ways life’s suffering can blind us to the world’s infinite wonder?
Such questions are reminiscent of the big, existential query that wraps up one of our greatest and most tough-minded plays: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s a question worthy of the great play you’re about to experience.
– Milwaukee, August 17, 2019