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Theatre in Review: Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop)/Tiny Beautiful Things (Public Theater)

Top: Carrie Coon, Susan Pourfar. Bottom: Herbert Point-DuJour, Nia Vardalos. Photos: Joan Marcus.

Two new productions face, head-on, one of life's most wrenching tragedies -- the loss of a child -- in very different ways. If one is far more effective than the other, each is notable for its willingness to stare, unblinkingly, into the face of such a terrible event.

The most remarkable thing about Mary Jane is the way that it so often finds drama in stillness and the unsaid. We get a preview of this in the first scene, when the title character is at home, in her one-bedroom apartment in Queens, making conversation with Ruthie, the super, who is fixing the sink. Ruthie is affable, but taciturn when the conversation turns to herself; when Mary Jane asks if she has children, the response -- a single "uh-huh" -- positively vibrates with unspoken feelings, none of them loving. Rarely have two syllables communicated so much. (Brenda Wehle's priceless line readings are a major asset here.)

This little moment -- really nothing more than a throwaway gag -- is, nevertheless, emblematic of playwright Amy Herzog's method. Time after time in Mary Jane, the characters' words trail off just as the unthinkable is about to be uttered. Sentences stop short of completion, leaving us to fill in the pause with the terrible truths that don't go away just because they aren't named. Indeed, it takes quite a while before we fully understand Mary Jane's situation: At first, all we know is that her son, Alex, a toddler, is bedridden and requires 24-hour care. Gradually, we pick up the facts: The boy suffers from cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder, as well as lung disease. Also, one of his vocal cords is paralyzed, leaving him unable to communicate verbally.

Mary Jane is left to face this crushing situation as best she can, a situation that Herzog communicates with a remarkable economy. Alex's father is long gone. "It's hell for him, not being a part of Alex's life. But he just can't ... I hope he finds some peace, I really do," Mary Jane says, summing up in a few words the sad unraveling of a once-loving relationship. Later, when Alex is in the hospital following a seizure, Mary Jane meets Chaya, a young Orthodox woman, who asks how long it has been since Alex was admitted. "This is week seven," Mary Jane says, casually, and the tiny pause that follows contains a world of hurt. A meeting with Alex's attending physician starts out chattily, with Mary Jane offering her a packet of Rice Krispies -- but when Mary Jane worries that Alex's daily X-rays may prove harmful, the doctor, choosing her words carefully, notes that such problems might not surface for two or three decades, adding, "I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but...Let's just say that's a very long time." It is the most delicately rendered death sentence imaginable.

And yet, I'm betting what you'll take away from Mary Jane, the play, is the profound love that lies at the heart of Mary Jane, the character. Her dream of becoming a teacher is on permanent delay, and her hold on the job that provides the necessary health insurance is tenuous. Still, she channels every bit of her energy into managing the situation, maintaining a determinedly upbeat tone. (This is especially evident when she coaches a new mother in a similar situation, ticking off the name of the right stroller to purchase, explaining the importance of a bath chair, and showing her how to work the health care system to maximum effect.) And when Alex has a seizure and a young visitor, seeing Mary Jane leap into action, blurts out, "I'm so sorry," Mary Jane, without thinking, replies, "Honey, why are you sorry?"

And in Carrie Coon's seemingly casual, yet ultimately transcendent, performance, we see that, for Mary Jane, there is no cause for regret, that the act of caring for Alex is its own justification, no matter what his prognosis might be. This is made blazingly clear when it looks as if a bureaucratic mix-up will keep Alex from getting a music therapy session and Mary Jane, at long last losing her grip, vents her indignation that her boy, who has endured so much, is to be denied this form of help. It's a revelation of the toll taken by years of tender care, given freely yet with the knowledge that it cannot change the inevitable outcome.

For all of this, Mary Jane is never depressing, thanks to Herzog's sly sense of humor, which finds laughter in the strangest circumstances, and thanks to the pointillist detail with which each character is rendered under Anne Kauffman's superbly controlled direction. Liza Colón-Zayas brings her considerable warmth and intelligence to the roles of Sherry, Alex's most dedicated home nurse, and the doctor who delivers the bad news to Mary Jane with such understatement. Danaya Esperanza is equally convincing as Sherry's adolescent niece and the harried music therapist. Susan Pourfar is touching as the young mother who turns to Mary Jane for guidance and hilariously brittle as the Orthodox mother -- who, on reflection, allows that her religion provides her with little comfort in these circumstances. Wehle returns for the final scene as a hospital chaplain, a Buddhist nun, who reaches out to Mary Jane and, in sharing her pain, finds a moment of grace.

Kauffman has also obtained fine work from her design team. Laura Jellinek, who is rapidly becoming the go-to designer for Off Broadway productions that require complex scenic changes, provides both the interior of Mary Jane's apartment and a couple of hospital locations. Japhy Weideman's lighting finds a new time-of-day look and emotional tone for each scene. Emily Rebholz's costumes go a long way toward creating distinct characters for the performers who double. Leah Gelpe's sound design is especially effective in suggesting the array of machines that keep Alex alive.

Kauffman also has a way with moments of quiet devastation, for example when Mary Jane crawls into Alex's hospital bed, seemingly trying to make him better using only the warmth of her body. Mary Jane is a play about terrible losses, but it is also about compassion and the abiding mystery of why things happen as they do. Herzog finds a strange beauty in her characters' suffering, a thought that you may find very difficult to shake off.

Before it gets to its climax, in which a father contemplates the death of his adolescent son in a car accident, Tiny Beautiful Things embraces a multitude of issues. It is taken from the book of the same name, a compilation, by the writer Cheryl Strayed (author of the best-selling memoir Wild), of letters from her stint writing the "Dear Sugar" column in the online magazine The Rumpus; it was conceived for the stage by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos, who takes the role of Strayed.

The questions range from the probing and metaphysical ("What is this love thing all about?") to the sort of query that Ann Landers would have dismissed with a simple "MYOB" or "kwitcherbeefin." Whatever the question, Strayed specializes in a kind of radical empathy, offering long, discursive replies rooted in her own experiences. Her correspondents occasionally complain that they don't know who she is, meaning they are not in possession of her name. On the other hand, they hear plenty about her struggles with heroin, the grandfather who sexually abused her, and her beloved mother who died at the age of 45.

And her answers are often deeply insightful. She recalls pouring out her tortured history to a new lover, who responds, "Don't get me wrong. I want to hear everything about your life. But I want you to know that you don't need to tell me this to get me to love you. You don't have to be broken for me." She comforts a reader who struggles with a narcissistic father with an account of her own father, who abandoned her, only to turn up out of the blue, as if nothing had happened. When she called him on his behavior, he flew into a rage and announced that he would be glad to be rid of her forever. Listening to Strayed, you feel that she would make the best friend ever, the kind who would keep every confidence, no matter how bizarre.

This feeling is intensified by Vardalos, who listens so intently to each of her correspondents and who so visibly struggles -- the conflicting emotions playing across her face -- as she tries to put complex feelings into simple, meaningful words. This is most evident in the climactic passage, in which a man, unable to express his grief over his son's death, sends in an itemized list detailing his agony. Strayed responds, point by point, honoring his loss and suggesting how, in embracing his pain, he may possibly find a way forward. If you go, don't be surprised by all the sobbing in the audience.

At the same time, Tiny Beautiful Things suffers from a lack of dramatic structure; the action simply moves from one letter to the next, some of which are more interesting than others. One suspects that the Dear Sugar column is best enjoyed in small doses; after eighty minutes or so of uplifting speeches, I began to feel as if I attending a church service. In the last analysis, Tiny Beautiful Things is so bent on healing that it sometimes forgets to be engaging. I began to wish that, just once in a while, Strayed would tell one of her correspondents to snap out of it.

The production, which returns after an engagement at the Public last season, retains Rachel Hauck's charmingly cluttered living-room-and-kitchen set, which is lit by Jeff Croiter with his trademark skill and sensitivity. Jennifer Moeller's costumes and Jill BC Du Boff's sound are also fine. Aside from Natalie Woolams-Torres, also held over from last year, the new supporting cast includes Teddy Cañez, Ceci Fernandez, DeLance Minefee, and Hubert Point-Du Jour, all of whom acquit themselves with distinction.

Still, this is what the British call an agony column, not really a play, for all of its moments of beauty and insight. Strayed has so many fans that the original Public engagement sold out instantly and I gather that ticket sales this year are equally brisk. Tiny Beautiful Things may offer hope and healing to troubled souls, but it does not offer them the pleasures (and consolations) of drama. Mary Jane provides an object lesson in how to address similar issues, but is all the more powerful for putting its arguments into a real play. -- David Barbour

(3 October 2017)

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