REVIEW: “Peace for Mary Frances”
“We don’t want you to suffer, we just want you to die”. When longevity overtakes comfort, those words, uttered by a child to an ailing parent, are words of love. Of course, they are also informed by the toll of caretaking.
In “Peace for Mary Frances”, a new play by Lily Thorne receiving a world premiere by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, venerable actor Lois Smith (“Marjorie Prime”)—herself now in the stage of stage life when lifetime achievements abound—is the titular Mary Frances, a widowed matriarch in chronic pain who has opted for home hospice. Anyone who has experienced the decline and death of a nonagenarian parent or grandparent will be struck by the piercing familiarity and hyper-realism of this play, which wunderkind director Lila Neugebauer (“At Home at the Zoo”, “The Wolves”) unpacks with great discipline and measurement over the course of its two and a half hour length.
The point, clearly made (and taken), is that death is long, and slow, and mostly unremarkable—alongside birth, the most common of human experiences. That truth doesn’t always make for a compelling stage play, though, and as such, “Peace for Mary Frances” operates best in its totality, rather than in any individual moment. In the opening scene, Ms. Smith moves from the living room couch of her West Hartford, Connecticut home to her bed upstairs, and there she remains until she is remains. A trio of siblings, grandchildren, nurses, and a social worker cycle through the home, aflutter with emotions and manipulations, all the while Mary Frances reaches for the ultimate peace.
Before she can, though, she must contend with unfinished business; primarily, her children. Fanny (Johanna Day, “Sweat”), an unreliable and self-described “cutting edge” heroin addict now in recovery, and Alice (J. Smith-Cameron, “Our Country’s Good”), a high-strung and impoverished master of passive-aggression, are in constant dispute as they battle for control over their mother’s care, while their aloof brother, Eddie (Paul Lazar), drops in once a week from Boston, sushi in hand. Each harbors a disconnect between reality and their own conception of their relationship and contributions to their mother’s care. Their dysfunction manifests clearly and quickly; more subtly revealed are Mary Frances’ flaws. The apple, it is true, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Alice moves in for six weeks to handle the day to day administration of medicine and management of Mary Frances’ oxygen concentrator, her daughters, a new mother (Natalie Gold) and a TV star (Heather Burns), pitching in. Things get rocky as Mary Frances declines, her own whims and affections fluctuating as fights over loyalty, history, and inheritance percolate and spasmodically explode. Ms. Day and Ms. Smith-Cameron’s feud is particularly vicious to observe, and both actors are in top form.
“Peace for Mary Frances” provides a universal and sad slice of life—literally in the case of Dane Laffrey’s cross-section set. As the play progresses, there are no absolute demarcations of scenes, only the constant coming and going of people and Tyler Micoleau’s shifting lights. Time fades as Mary Frances fades. Playwright Lauren Gunderson recently said that the endings of plays are the most false part, because life goes on. To provide the obvious spoiler, not so in “Peace for Mary Frances”. Death, it turns out, may be the only true ending. And it will come, whether we want it or not. If you want a preview, check out this play.
Bottom Line: “Peace for Mary Frances”, a new play by Lily Thorne, receives a world premiere production by The New Group starring Lois Smith as a fading matriarch of a very dysfunctional family, waiting to die in home hospice. Hyper-realistic, brimming with both tedium and spasmodic explosions of family feuds, death isn’t always the most compelling experience to observe, but that turns out to be the point.
“Peace for Mary Frances”
The New Group
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: May 23, 2018
Final Performance: June 17, 2018