What makes Mary Page Marlowe such a fascinating character study is that she could easily be someone you know. She often feels as if her life is not of her own making, a dread hidden in the hearts of many. We witness notable moments of her life from birth through the age of 69, while crisscrossing through time. It is not always a pleasant journey, but at a moving 90 minutes it is never boring.
Mary Page’s path is laid out by the brilliant Tracy Letts, a playwright who often centers his work on those who act out in pain and anger. Here Letts treats his lead character with more compassion. Though she has her dark moments involving struggles with addiction, a Letts’ hallmark, at intervals she is funny and is often downright likable. He also takes advantage of the magic of the theater by having Mary Page portrayed by six different actresses. Each interprets her slightly differently, yet there is a clear through-thread from promise to exasperation, and finally acceptance.
The sprawling cast has 18 members leading to a frustrating amount of brief appearances by quality supporting talent. These include Kayli Carter as Mary Page’s maturing daughter, Marcia Debonis as a patient therapist and Brian Kerwin as the most compatible of Mary Page’s husbands. Fans of the brilliant Tatiana Maslany will enjoy seeing her focus on a single role. She brings an intensity to Mary Page at ages 27 and 36, when the character is self-aware though sadly self-destructive. Emma Geer sparkles with enthusiasm as Mary Page age 19, optimistically holding on to a future she feels she can manifest. And the remarkable Blair Brown — a holdover from the play’s Chicago incarnation — gives tenderness and warmth to Mary Page as she eases into ages 59, 63, and 69. The downside of the casting is that we don’t get sufficient time to bathe in the glow of any of these performances.
The various Mary Page manifestations and the family and friends central to her development are brought together by the sure hand of Lila Neugebauer, last seen receiving rave reviews for The Wolves. She creates opportunities for Mary Page to briefly pass herself along the road from past to future, giving her an opening to quite literally find herself. Many on the behind-the-scenes team have previous collaborative experience with Neugebauer. The character’s ability to float through life stages is supported by the clever scene design of Laura Jellinek, who starts with a two story white landscape and adapts it with sliding islands of simple set pieces. Kaye Voyce’s costumes capture period and place, not to mention visually connecting the Mary Pages. Tyler Micoleau‘s lighting design works alongside sound provided by Brandon Walcott and original music by Bray Poor to emphasize appropriate year and mood.
The unusual structure of Mary Page Marlowe allows us not only to see cause and effect, but the even more complex and interesting effect and cause. How does each bend in the road lead to arriving at the ultimate destination? The minimal action culminates in a quiet scene built around an accurate and subtle metaphor. If you can tolerate the deliberate gaps in what is shared — a technique critical to the expression of the character’s experience — there is much to enjoy in this well-crafted a piece. The production plays at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through August 19. For tickets and information visit https://2st.com/shows/current-production/mary-page-marlowe.