By curious coincidence, this season in New York, two plays—written 25 years apart—featured multiple actresses playing the same character.
In Three Tall Women, Edward Albee divides a single female protagonist into distinct facets and stages of life. Known only as A, B, and C, they were memorably embodied in Joe Mantello’s revivalby Alison Pill, Laurie Metcalf, and Glenda Jackson.
By this measure, at least, Tracy Letts’ Mary Page Marlowe, seen here in its New York premiere production from Second Stage Theatre, is literally twice as complicated. Mary Page is played by six different actresses. I list them in age order, young to old: Mia Sinclair Jenness, Emma Geer, Tatiana Maslany, Susan Pourfar, Kellie Overbey, and Blair Brown.
If that isn’t sufficiently intricate theater math for you, consider that three of the actresses play Mary at one age each; two play her at two ages; and the final Mary Page (Brown, in a wondrously touching performance) embodies her at three ages. Put more simply, we encounter Mary at various points in her life starting at age 12 and continuing to age 69, as she nears the end.
In addition to this split-personality device, both plays share that they are written by male writers but very much immersed in a female-driven dramatic world.
Beyond that, though, surely these plays are more different than similar. Albee’s A, B, and C—by all accounts a stylized, fragmented depiction of the author’s formidable mother—remain a glamorous but aloof, brittle abstraction. Mary Page Marlowe, on the other hand, is memorable for her profound, heartbreaking ordinariness.
Audiences at Mary Page Marlowe need to adjust to a couple of narrative tricks. One, obviously, is the single-character/multiple-actor construct; the other is that the individual scenes are not played in chronological order. At the performance I saw, programs rustled quite a bit for the first 15 minutes or so, as we got our bearings.
But it was notably quiet after that. If I feared that Mary Page Marlowe might be hoist with the petard of its own cleverness, the lovely little play instead proves quite easy to follow. More importantly, it holds the audience in rapt attention for 90 intermission-less minutes. There’s also considerable pleasure in thinking about it afterwards, mentally moving the individual blocks around to uncover hidden details.
In fact, I rather wish there had been more, but I’m inclined to think Letts knows better. The play’s very shortness is a perfect metaphor. Dying at 69—relatively young by today’s standards—Mary Page’s life is nonetheless a study in arcs and events. Some are clearly defined and reach a conclusion; others are left in a murkier state. So it is likely to be for all of us at our assigned time.
I risk spoiling Mary Page Marlowe if I reveal too much, and I really do hope the play (if not its heroine) has a long life. It’s ideal in some ways for regional theater, though the large cast—18 actors—will be prohibitive for many.
More than anything, it immerses us in the home-life of American Midwesterners who exist closer to the margins than their circumstances initially suggest. The potentially devastating effects of alcoholism is one dominant theme; another is the unpredictability of circumstances.
But many of the most memorable moments in Mary Page Marlowe are short exchanges about mundane issues, made resonant through Letts’ exceptional ear for conversation, as in this scene, where Mary is in what will likely be her final hospital stay:
Nurse: You got other kids or is your daughter your only one?
Mary Page: Just one, just Wendy. She has two kids. Small family. My husband said, “We’re like the Kennedys but without the children or the power of the money.”
Nurse: What does your husband do?
Mary Page: He’s dead.
Mary Page: So he doesn’t do much.
Nurse: I’m sorry.
Mary Page: He died a few years ago. Four years ago.
Nurse: I’m sorry.
Mary Page: I miss him. We weren’t married that long, just a few years. He was my third husband. I wish I could have found him sooner, but… doesn’t work that way.
Nurse: Three husbands.
Mary Page: Yeah.
Nurse: Can you remember all their names?
Very occasionally, Letts overreaches for metaphoric impact, and a couple of scenes are heavy-handed. Kellie Overbey, playing a tightly-wound Mary Page at 50, gives a virtuosic performance in the darkest scene, but it felt too obviously like a set piece. I was far more moved by a quieter but wrenching scene that followed.
More often, though, I was won over by Mary Page Marlowe. Letts is, of course, a celebrated actor as well as a playwright, and the writing here is a gift to actors, who can imbue it with a rich range of emotional colors. (Early on, I earmarked one scene in particular—a trio of college girls including Mary Page, sharing thoughts about the future—as something my colleagues who teach acting will want to use for scene work.)
At Second Stage, director Lila Neugebauer skillfully navigates a fine line between the realistic tone of individual scenes (staged here mostly on small pallets that move on and off the stage), and the more symbolic, ambiguous overarching tone. Among the strong ensemble, there’s especially good work by Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust, and Brian Kerwin. As Mary Page, Susan Pourfar and especially Brown bring exceptional detail. Grace Gummer’s rather generalized angsty-ness felt like a TV performance; Tatiana Maslany, who genuinely is a TV star—so riveting and virtuosic in Orphan Black—is surprisingly unmemorable here, and a little too contemporary.
I’ve talked to friends who admired parts of Mary Page Marlowe, but found it underwhelming in the aggregate. I had a different feeling—that in 90 minutes of often understated action, Letts potently sums up a life in way that is quite overwhelming.