Rachel McAdams Triumphs in MARY JANE — Review


April Matthis and Rachel McAdams | Photo: Matthew Murphy

Juan A. Ramirez
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April 23, 2024 10:20 PM

“What’s the matter, Mary Jane, had a hard day?”

I’m not certain that, in Mary Jane, playwright Amy Herzog had in mind Alanis Morrissette’s ode to “empathy for the feminine, for the vulnerable, and the self care, particularly for those of us who are service oriented and generous and the orientation in life is to give and ask questions later.”

But it seems a logical inspiration for her 2017 drama, receiving its Broadway premiere through the Manhattan Theatre Club and starring Rachel McAdams in her professional stage debut. It’s a daunting look at a single mother struggling to care for her (likely terminally) ill child, held from bleakness by the character’s sureness and Herzog’s empathy, which director Anne Kauffman abundantly conveys.

Mary Jane is aided by a coterie of similarly well-equipped women, represented in the production by a supporting doubly-cast ensemble: mainly a nurse (April Matthis) and two women in comparable predicaments (Susan Pourfar). Kauffman directs each stellar performance towards limitless compassion; muted, but never extinguished, by circumstance.

It takes a scene or so for McAdams to ease into her character – though, when we meet her, Mary Jane is making uncomfortable small talk with her building’s super (Brenda Wehle), so perhaps the benefit of the doubt is in order. Either way, what McAdams brings to each of her roles is focus: a repertoire of intelligent, capable women built from a combination of mundanity and natural sparkle

Susan Pourfar and Rachel McAdams | Photo: Matthew Murphy

Her Mary Jane – a triumph, if one that points to better stage outings to come – is no different. A laundry list of her calamities slowly reveals itself throughout the play, from migraines to student loans to her son’s Nordic-made medical equipment (“the design is great but it’s a huge pain to get replacement parts”). We laugh when her super offers a woo-woo diagnosis about her problems being held in the fibers of her body, but it soon becomes clear it’d be almost impossible for them not to be.

Though her situation shows no sign of improvement, she still views her career as being simply “on hold.” When their nurse’s niece (Lily Santiago, very good) apologizes for being present during a harrowing seizure, Mary Jane almost apologizes to her for having to witness it.

The son remains unseen, tucked away behind Lael Jellinek’s apartment set, which is later used as a heartbreaking Sword of Damocles after the action moves to a hospital room. We only hear him through the low hums and whirrs of his machinery (Leah Gelpe did the sound), and the occasional physical fit.

His woes, though incredibly real, are to be imagined by us, much like the predicaments ailing Herzog’s characters: questions of hope, faith, community, the burden of unpaid maternity, and the Sysyphean suffering of the American healthcare system.

Herzog weaves each of these strings into her narrative delicately, carefully piling them on without causing suffocation. And it’s Mary Jane’s dedication to an unseen peaceful future, filtered through McAdams’ touching performance, that stops it from becoming unbearable. Like the character, Mary Jane reaches the depths of dread, but with the most human of touches.

Mary Jane is in performance through June 2, 2024 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street in New York City.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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