In its world premiere production Peace for Mary Frances by Lily Thorne resonates with power and poignancy. Beautifully acted with Lois Smith as the riveting lead, the play examines the intimacies of a family dynamic in a crucible we all face: dying. Three siblings must confront each other and their mother with the added stress of coping with their mother’s illness and eventual death. Compounding this situation is the pain of unfinished business in their family relationships. The loneliness and hurt each experiences occurs not only with their mother’s leaving them, but in dealing with old wounds that still bleed.
As an audience we endure the process with the family as if in real time. It is heartfelt, stark, and emotional. Because of the sterling, spot-on performances and the amazing direction by Lila Neugebauer, we appreciate the sardonic humor. We cringe at the bellicosity among siblings and nieces. And we empathize with the frustration each has, the need to escape what they never have undergone before. Finally, the tediousness of the dying process occurs as if in slow motion, agonizing for the family members, and each must deal on a personal level. Some lash out at each other, others remain steadfast. Through it all, Mary Frances moves steadily toward her final rest.
Indeed, as Mary Frances approaches leaving this plane of existence, the turmoil increases for everyone, including the matriarch. Ironically, when the long trial ends, the conclusion is so abrupt, we cannot believe it. How the actors, director, playwright, and technical team achieve this makes the production a one-of-a-kind tour de force. For those who have lost a loved one this production will seem familiar. However, the actors and especially Lois Smith’s rendering of Mary Frances’ humanity, make the process as particular as life itself.
The production unfolds gradually. With the unveiling of the characters, we discover the siblings’ tribulations. We note their rancor with each other. And humor rains down on the situation. It begins when daughter Alice states that her own granddaughter (her youngest daughter’s baby), fortunately, will not experience beatings and abuse from her parents. Even though Mary Frances denies her part in her children’s harsh upbringing, we glean Alice’s truth. From these comments we foresee that the family dynamic throughout the play will be the antithesis of peaceful and smooth. It becomes clear that their own internal stresses and external conflicts will impact their mother’s dying process. This is especially so when Mary Frances commands that a hospice care service take over.
Fanny, the youngest of the three siblings, portrayed with volatile and emotional fury by Johanna Day, vies with her sister Alice (J. Smith-Cameron) for their mother’s love and care. Smith-Cameron shines as the capable, dependable, but manipulative sister. Alice elects to leave her work in New York City to minister to her mother’s needs in Connecticut. Her decision remains a difficult one, but her mother’s turn for the worse prompts it.
Though Fanny visits Mary Frances after work, her incompetence disqualifies her for caring responsibly for her mother. For example, instead of properly monitoring her mother’s oxygen machine, she becomes distracted and ignores it. Alice’s daughters’ admonitions that their mom must not leave their grandmother alone while Fanny works force Alice to stay. Though oblivious brother Eddie (portrayed by Paul Lazar, who breaks at his mom’s death), like Fanny, lives near their mother, he too appears incapable of caring for her responsibly.
Only Alice with the support of daughters Helen (the always excellent Heather Burns) and Rosie (Natalie Gold appears as the sanest family member) prudently and solidly shoulders responsibility. With little emotionalism she marshals her mother’s wishes to not seek any more interventions to sustain her life. Hospice nurse and advisor Bonnie (Mia Katigbak) and social worker Michael (Brian Miskell) mediate and review with the entire family how hospice care will work for their mother and keep her comfortable with morphine. Toward the end, home healthcare aide Clara (Melle Powers) supports Alice’s work. For Mary Frances finally decides that an impartial assistant will smooth out the situation. Of course arguments continue.
When the hospice nurse arrives, reality sets in for the audience and family. Indeed, with sentience and pinpoint rationality, Mary Frances desires that her life be over. Her physical body, worn out by COPD, struggles against the pains of arthritis, shingles, and lowered oxygen. Her diminished quality of life appears not without humor, but without enjoyment and purpose. She will not intentionally aid it to continue beyond her time. How many of us would choose as Mary Frances has chosen? The overriding question lingers throughout the play.
The production values, set, lighting, and staging all fuel this drama and promote the realistic, minute-by-minute rendering of this family’s attempts to get through Mary Frances’ finality. Kudos go to Dane Laffrey (Scenic Design), Jessica Pabst (Costume Design), Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design), and Daniel Kluger (Music and Sound Design) for their efforts. I cannot say enough about Lois Smith’s superb performance. She elevates living and dying onstage with honor and gracefulness. Also, the interactions between and among the three generations of family resound with authenticity thanks to a formidable ensemble of actors and their director.
Peace for Mary Frances presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center runs through 17 June. It is a shame that the run is not extended so that more might see this production whose unique gifts combine entertainment and education through the medium of drama elevated to a poetic form.