An old person has died, or is dying. Family members, usually one of them prodigal, gather at the homestead to mourn, bicker, reveal long-suppressed secrets, and unleash resentments they have nursed for years. Fictional family dramas take wing from this scenario more often than any other, it seems. But in her first play, Peace for Mary Frances, documentary film producer Lily Thorne gives the time-tested themes a 21st-century twist. Thorne’s story plunges into the troubled waters of modern end-of-life and hospice care, even as it swims, as expected, with the prehistoric sharks of family squabbles and old wounds.
Now in its world premiere production from The New Group, with Lois Smith in the title role of a fading materfamilias, the play is an entertaining and often compelling comedy-drama for its first half. It will resonate with so many, especially middle-aged and sandwich-generation folk living through the stress of caring for ailing elders. But like the sharp-tongued old lady at its center, it loses focus not far into the second act.
Fortunate to be of sound mind, 90-year-old Mary Frances has decided to forego further treatment for her incurable respiratory condition and die at home in the care of her family, with the guidance of an unflappable hospice nurse (Mia Katigbak) and a social worker (a funny turn by Brian Miskell). Unlike these professionals, her favorite daughter, Fanny (Johanna Day), is a recovering heroin addict and perpetually unreliable, while her other daughter, Alice (J. Smith-Cameron), is embittered and broke.
As Mary Frances declines, Alice reluctantly agrees to stay with “Noni” as long as the old lady agrees to pay her expenses. Lawyer brother Ed comes by only on weekends to help Mary Frances with financial matters. Two 20-something granddaughters, one with an infant in tow, come often to help, but unlike their elders these characters are thinly developed. (Neither my companion nor I was sure until Act II whether they were sisters, or a couple raising the baby together.)
Short scenes and economical pacing give Act I the feel of a well written, well played television drama, which is not a criticism in my book. (The reviewer’s lexicon needs a TV equivalent of “cinematic.”) Convincing characters are key in any medium, and the fine cast under the direction of Lila Neugebauer makes Mary Frances’s family seem very real. As the crisis progresses Fanny and Alice devolve into feuding little girls, still appealing to “Mommy” to judge their disputes, forcing granddaughter Rosie (Natalie Gold) to step into the role of the level-headed mature one. Meanwhile, as some family member is bound to do in these painful situations, her TV-star sister Helen (Heather Burns) throws up her hands, unable to cope.
Most deep and appealing is Smith-Cameron’s Alice, who swallows indignity after indignity yet gives and gives. Lois Smith’s Mary Frances, confined to sofa and then bed for almost the entire play, effectively conveys the weight of nearly a century of toughening experience – ancestral escape from the Armenian genocide, economic struggles, the trauma of Fanny’s addiction. Smith, and the script, wisely resist the temptation to make Mary Frances a fount of wisdom and gravitas. Instead she’s a smart survivor, a whiner with a temper – in short, a flawed human being like any other, who happens to be dying of old age.
As Mary Frances sinks into weakness and morphine in the second act, seeing more and more ghosts and losing touch with reality, the play loses steam. Mary Frances remains compelling when she’s present, but the pacing lags. A clever irony and a compelling new character bring fresh energy, but not enough: Mary Frances has insisted that she doesn’t want a stranger in the house to care for her, that only her family will do, she doesn’t trust anyone but Alice to administer her medication or Ed to handle her money. Yet it’s a home health aide (a glowing small-role performance by Melle Powers), who brings no family baggage, who finally brings Mary Frances the peace of the play’s title (along with, of course, the increasing doses of morphine).
A flawed but resonant and socially cutting-edge story, Peace for Mary Frances from The New Group is at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan until June 17, 2018. Get tickets online or call 212-279-4200.