“Why can’t you just say what you want?” an exasperated sixteen-year-old girl asks her mother in the first scene of Tracy Letts’s lovely, wrenching Mary Page Marlowe, now in its New York premiere at Second Stage Theater. Mom, the title character, is seated with her daughter and twelve-year-old son in a Denny’s in Dayton, Ohio, one of various locations in that state and in Kentucky where we watch Mary Page’s life unfold. She is forty here, explaining the terms of her impending divorce from the children’s father — terms that seem, as the teenaged Wendy suggests, to have been largely defined by their father. “God, listen to you,” Wendy snorts. “It’s like you’re in the Kremlin.”
Mary Page was different once, sort of. In the second scene, we observe her at nineteen, played by another actress — one of six who take on the role at different stages, from adolescence to her late sixties — informing college friends that she turned down a marriage proposal: “I just feel too independent for all that, or….” She pauses, as if still searching for an explanation, then eventually adds, “I’m interested in other things. It’s not like that’s my only choice in life.”
But the choices we have are limited by both circumstance and personal nature, and those we make don’t always reflect or serve our interests. Letts has explored this general conundrum before, in savagely funny, deeply moving works as stark as Killer Joe and as epic as August: Osage County. In the relatively intimate Mary Page Marlowe, he focuses on the struggle of one seemingly unexceptional woman — she identifies herself as such at one point — whom we get to know through a series of experiences and events, laid out not chronologically but rather like brilliantly designed puzzle pieces, which often pierce us as we assemble them.
Gender is relevant here, of course, but Letts’s approach is refreshingly free of self-conscious feminism. The apparent passivity that can make Mary Page frustrating, even to herself — “I didn’t decide on any of it. All of it happened to me,” she tells a therapist of her path in life — owes to more than some imposed lack of autonomy. And for those who don’t see themselves as entirely autonomous, Letts suggests — boldly and insightfully — that there can be power in indecision, or in going along to get along. “The only reason I’ve ever had sex is shame, guilt, power, attention,” Mary Page admits to her shrink in the same scene. “No one will ever know that. No one is ever going to see me.”
Like many seemingly unexceptional people, Mary Page also endures extraordinary challenges. An attractive redhead we meet not long into the play turns out to be her mother, Roberta, played first with contained desperation and then growing brittleness by a fine Grace Gummer. In one of the most harrowing encounters, Mary Page is represented only by a baby’s cries as a very young Roberta and her husband, a broken World War II veteran, fight; in another, Mia Sinclair Jenness delivers a haunting twelve-year-old Mary Page, seeking the approval of a mother who by then is too lost to offer her anything except barely concealed disappointment.
Under Lila Neugebauer’s rigorous, compassionate direction, the different women cast as Mary Page reveal how she, too, comes to accommodate loss and dismay. The ambivalent college student played by a fetching Emma Geer becomes the precociously jaded accountant played in her twenties and thirties by Tatiana Maslany, whose ripe, confident sensuality has an undercurrent of sadness. That young woman is unprepared for the torment she will face in middle age, as unspeakable tragedy sends Mary Page’s life into a downward spiral, stringently captured in Susan Pourfar’s and Kellie Overbey’s superb performances. When, at fifty, she appears to hit rock bottom, her second husband, a salesman not smooth enough to disguise his self-interest (an excellent David Aaron Baker), cannot hide his disgust. Mary Page finally explodes right back at him, and Overbey makes the force of her long-repressed rage and anguish unforgettable.
But in an authorial twist that’s customarily devoid of sentimentality, Letts allows his heroine, in her final act, a measure of grace and contentment — not to mention the opportunity to be played here by the marvelous Blair Brown. There is a third husband, a gentle soul rendered with a sweetly goofy edge by a touching Brian Kerwin — a guy who can see her, in fact, and offer a shoulder to cry on. In allowing herself that, Mary Page betrays no frailty but, to the contrary, emerges as altogether stronger. Letts has given us, once again, a portrait of humanity that is simultaneously scathing and forgiving — and utterly unpatronizing. Ms. Marlowe, for all her complications, deserves no less.