Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Mary Jane

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 24, 2024

Mary Jane by Amy Herzog. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Set design by Lael Jellinek. Costume design by Brenda Abbandandolo. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Leah Gelpe. Hair, wig, and make-up design by J. Jared Janas Vocal coach Kate Wilson.
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Brenda Wehle, April Matthis, Susan Pourfar, and Lily Santiago.
Theater: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Rachel McAdams
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Don't cry for Mary Jane. Not in front of her, anyway. She hasn't the time for your pity or to feel sorry for herself, as she single-mindedly pours everything she's got into the care of her critically ill two-year-son, born 25 weeks into her pregnancy and in need of constant attention. That is the gist of Amy Herzog's harrowing play, Mary Jane, at The Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, anchored by a pitch-perfect performance as the title character by Rachel McAdams, making an auspicious Broadway debut.

They call her "Mom," many of the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who come into contact with her. And that is a fitting name, being that is pretty much her sole occupation. For what it's worth, and it's worth a great deal, she is not alone but is accompanied on this journey through hell by a bevy of women who provide her with a lifeline.

The first one we meet is Ruthie (a warm Brenda Wehle, who later doubles as a Buddhist nun at the hospital where the second half of the play takes place). Ruthie is the super at the small one-bedroom apartment in Queens where Mary Jane lives. Mary Jane's son Alex occupies the bedroom, from where we can hear the sound of life-sustaining equipment. Mary Jane sleeps, always with one eye open, on a pull-out sofa bed in the living room.

At opening, we see Ruthie working on a clogged sink in the tiny kitchen. The conversation is light in tone as the two women sit for a while and share a Coke. But in talking, we get a hint at the little things that, at least for the time being, are keeping Mary Jane away from the abyss. In this case, it is a matter of the legal requirement that window guards have to be in place when there are children living in the building. Mary Jane has removed them so that she can let Alex look outside. Ruthie presses the issue in her role as super, but then, woman-to-woman, she agrees to turn a blind eye.

April Mathis and Rachel McAdams
Photo by Matthew Murphy
It's like this throughout, as Mary Jane interacts with the kind-hearted, efficient, and dedicated home healthcare nurse Sherry (April Matthis, who later returns as a pediatric physician); Kat (Lily Santiago), a music therapist; and Chaya (Susan Pourfar), another mother in a similar situation whom she meets in a break room at the hospital. All of these interactions are marked by an underlying unforced tenderness of women supporting women, so perfectly if quietly emphasized through Anne Kauffman's clear-eyed, unfussy direction.

Mary Jane is no Pollyanna and she is not in denial. She understands perfectly well that hers is a life of minute by minute, one day at a time. She cannot allow herself to deal with any negativity, and, indeed, anyone who is not completely on her team is left outside of the world of the play, talked about but never seen: a husband who walked away; a far less reliable homecare nurse; a difficult boss; and, significantly, a healthcare system that itself is unequipped to provide all that is necessary, epitomized by the pending loss of Mary Jane's health insurance.

The only breach we do see in Mary Jane's steadiness comes in a pair of conversations about the role of God in all of this. One takes place between Mary Jane and Chaya, a Hasidic Jew, and the other between her and the hospital chaplain, a Buddhist nun. Neither offers any sure conclusions, but these do show that Mary Jane (or perhaps Amy Herzog) is seeking answers to unanswerable questions.

Despite Mary Jane's unwillingness to give in to despair, those of us bearing witness may find the undiminishing focus of the 105-minute production (no intermission) a lot to take in. Indeed, there were several walk-outs at the performance I attended (along with an unwelcome mid-play shout out to Rachel McAdams, who, fortunately, did not raise an eyebrow). So despite a plethora of outstanding performances, consider this a trigger warning.