The diseased or broken body has been a staple of Western drama ever since Philoctetes groused about a gimpy foot taking forever to heal. It runs through sociopathy-via-scoliosis in Richard III, as well as the various infections or addictions charted by Ibsen, O’Neill, and, of course, Tony Kushner.
Amy Herzog’s compact but wondrous Mary Jane revolves around a severely disabled child, but the wounded subject stays mostly in the wings. Alex, who has cerebral palsy, is talked about and tended to, but withheld from audience scrutiny — and, thus, our sympathy or potential revulsion. Instead, the focus is on his ultracompetent single mother, Mary Jane, played with crystalline, almost scary serenity by Carrie Coon. “You seem to be someone who’s carrying a lot of tension in her body,” notes superintendent Ruthie (Brenda Wehle) while unclogging her tenant’s sink. The surprising suggestion is that beneath her determined, problem-solving exterior, Mary Jane is buckling as much as her afflicted son.
A lazier playwright would make the 95-minute piece a slow build to one caregiver’s tear-jerking breakdown, but Herzog (4000 Miles) has more respect for human resilience. Her play is divided into two locations: Mary Jane’s Queens apartment, where she and home health aides care for Alex around the clock, and the pediatrics wing of a hospital, when his condition worsens. The drama lies in Herzog’s unblinking portrayal of endurance in the narrow parallel universe of the chronically unwell, and what it’s like when the walls start closing in. There’s no plot to speak of, just a steady accretion of medical and personal details.
In one remarkable sequence, Mary Jane shares the story of Alex’s premature birth and terrifying first days with Amelia (Danaya Esperanza), the niece of day-nurse Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas). Herzog punctuates this quietly harrowing monologue with a call to action timed with Hitchcockian savvy: Alex’s seizure in the next room. The writer’s mix of sympathy and showmanship is gorgeously ruthless.
In similar fashion, director Anne Kauffman’s clear-eyed production balances cool distance and precisely deployed humor and warmth to ratchet up the tension and stakes. Neither play nor staging pander to base desires for cathartic tears or medical miracles; instead, there’s a distinct, implacable gear-shift into the grimly institutional portion of the story. You keep waiting for Coon’s supermom to lose her composure or crumble in despair, but the worst is tetchiness at a wayward music therapist. Her instinct is to normalize and contain tragedy. “Well, you know, everybody has stuff,” she nonchalantly tells Jewish mother Chaya (a magnetic Susan Pourfar), explaining her grueling stay in the hospital. “That’s not true,” Chaya shoots back. “Some people don’t have stuff; I know a lot of people, in fact, without any stuff at all.”
It takes nothing away from Herzog’s art to acknowledge that she and her husband (director Sam Gold) have a child with a debilitating muscle disease called nemaline myopathy. Doubtless Herzog is writing what she knows, but maybe also things she has yet to learn on her journey. “Can you still see?” a Buddhist nun (Wehle) asks Mary Jane, now bundled in white ICU coveralls and awaiting the onset of a blinding migraine. Can too much hoping and grieving destroy your vision of reality? Maybe the question is for the audience. Can you bear to look? Above all, this exquisite, bracing drama is a generous act of showing. This is called darkness; your eyes will adjust.