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Peace for Mary Frances

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 23, 2018

Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron
Photo by Monique Carboni

It is both significant and problematic that Lily Thorne was a documentary film producer for many years before penning Peace for Mary Frances, her debut play having its premiere in a production by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. In it, Thorne documents in minute detail the final weeks in the life of the 90-year-old matriarch of a highly dysfunctional family.

There is an unwieldy amount of information to take in during the play's running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, and even with the grand treasure of an actress, Lois Smith, in the title role, things nearly collapse under the weight of it all. As the Emperor Joseph famously says to Mozart in Amadeus, there are too many notes.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that there are two storylines here, either of which could support a play on its own. For one of them, it feels almost as though the audience is expected to be taking notes about how hospice care works, the use of medications to ease pain and anxiety for the dying, the psychological impact on the caregivers, and so forth. All of this information is presented with great specificity by Bonnie (Mia Katigbak), the straightforward hospice nurse in charge of Mary Frances' case, and by Michael (Brian Miskell), the overly-eager-to-help social worker. This is docudrama to the nth degree.

Then there is the other part of the plot that deals with Mary Frances' hapless middle-aged children, whose story unfolds more like that of a convoluted soap opera. The siblings barely get along in the best of circumstances. And this is far from the best of circumstances. The enmity is particularly palpable between Fanny (Johanna Day), a volatile and unreliable drug addict, and her sister Alice (J. Smith-Cameron). Alice, who lives in New York City, reluctantly takes over their mother's care at their family home in Connecticut after she finds Fanny half asleep on the sofa and Mary Frances' oxygen tank turned off.

The two sisters barely can stand to be in the same room with each other, and the air is filled with their accusations, screaming, and threats every time they come into contact. There also is a third sibling in the picture, a brother, Eddie (Paul Lazar), who is all but useless. His contribution is to pop in from time to time, spend a couple of hours sitting with their mother, and then take off without lifting a finger to actually help with anything. Also on the scene are Alice's daughters, the married Rosie (Natalie Gold) who always arrives with her baby in tow, and Helen (Heather Burns), an OCD-suffering television actress who has been helping to support her mother for the past decade because Alice has been unable to make ends meet in her career of casting horoscopes. Finally, there is Clara (Melle Powers) the home health care aide whom Mary Frances hires late in the proceedings when she wants to be left to die in peace in the hands of professionals.

If you can manage to tune out the constant uproar and pay attention to Mary Frances, you will find that Lois Smith gives us a richly developed character who remains clear-headed and in charge of things until the very end. She will not let go until she is sure the bills are paid, that everyone understands she is to be allowed to die with no further medical interference beyond the drugs that keep her comfortable; how she wants her ashes to be scattered on her husband's grave; and how she wants her money and possessions to be distributed after she is gone.

Throughout, our sympathies lie, as they should, with the dying woman. Yet for a play that is imbued with so much information, there is a significant piece that is conspicuous in its absence. We have to wonder what kind of parents Mary Frances and her husband were to have raised such incapable, dependent, and neurotic children. We learn very little about their past. There are the horror stories Mary Frances' mother-in-law told her about a harrowing life under the Ottoman Empire (the family is Armenian), but almost nothing about her frugal husband, who left her well off financially after he died. We can only speculate about the way they raised their children, all of whom remain at least partly financially dependent on her. Even now, we can see she is not above playing one against the other, which might account for the intensity of the sibling rivalry between Fanny and Alice. But beyond that, we are left to wonder to ourselves how they will manage their lives without her firm hand in all things. By the end of the play, Mary Frances will have found her own peace, but who knows what will become of Fanny, Alice, and Eddie.

Director Lila Neugebauer manages to keep all of the moving parts in motion within the play's overwrought structure, but there so much going on that it feels like we are binge watching a reality TV show that is unfolding in real time. That may work within a medium like a documentary film, but its excessiveness absolutely weighs down the play, and the story of Mary Frances herself is nearly lost in the mayhem.

Peace for Mary Frances
Through June 17
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral