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Theatre in Review: Peace for Mary Frances (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Natalie Gold, Lois Smith, Heather Burns. Photo: Monique Carboni.

Lily Thorne strikes me as a talented writer, and when she learns something about structure and the importance of conflict, there's good reason to believe that she will produce something memorable. Right now, however, we have Peace for Mary Frances, which, despite its very real virtues -- not least of which is an unblinking gaze when it comes to its difficult subject -- falls some lengths short of being a real play. Not even a lovingly directed production featuring a fine cast led by the wonderful Lois Smith can entirely paper over this stubborn fact.

In one of those weird coincidences that happen from time to time, Peace for Mary Frances is the second play on the same theme to open this week: Like Marina Carr's Woman and Scarecrow, at the Irish Rep, the action centers on a deathwatch. The title character, a West Hartford matriarch, is, at ninety, facing the inevitable shutting-down of her body. Tired of life, her mental and physical energy sapped by constant discomfort, she opts for hospice care, which will be administered at home, with one major stipulation: She is to be cared for only by members of her family; strangers are not welcome.

Why Mary Frances would expect any TLC from this bunch is something to ponder, for Thorne has dreamed up the most dysfunctional stage family since the Westons of August: Osage County. One daughter, Fanny, is an ex-heroin addict who lives and works at the local Y, where her progress is closely monitored -- according to the terms of her recovery, she is one bad drug test away from being relegated to homelessness. Alice, her other daughter, is, of all things, an astrologist with a celebrity clientele; she is also a shopaholic with a bank balance of a hundred dollars. Eddie, the son, is emotionally detached, showing up occasionally long enough to eat a plate of sushi, give his mother a kiss, and depart. Fanny's daughter refuses to visit, lest she be forced to face her mother; only Mary Frances knows where she is.

Even accounting for the fact that Mary Frances' late husband was abusive, the level of maturity among her offspring is depressingly low. Fanny and Alice are practiced snipers, forever goading each other into acting out, and, one foot in the grave, Mary Frances is expected to adjudicate their disputes. Alice, the spendthrift, is on Mary Frances' payroll as long as she is providing care, as is Eddie, for keeping an eye on her finances. (Eddie has worked himself out of bankruptcy.) These facts are galling to Fanny, who, each time she loses an argument, loots the house of decorative objects. It goes without saying that nobody can sustain a relationship with a spouse or romantic partner.

At issue is the million dollars that Mary Frances has managed to save and how it will be distributed after her death. (Adding to the list of injustices collected by Alice is the news that, at one point, she was cut out of her mother's will; the fact of her restoration brings little comfort.) Bonnie, the caring, poker-faced hospice worker, stresses the importance of creating a serene atmosphere, but she might as well be talking to the wall: Over the course of two acts, accusations are hurled, old wounds are ripped open, and financial details are haggled over. Finally, an armed truce is achieved, with the sisters signing a contract that dictates the rules of behavior; transgressors will be banished from the house.

If these elements were ever allowed to combust, Peace for Mary Frances might have been a family drama to end them all, but the author has adopted a slow, halting pace, allowing each situation to approach a boiling point before hurriedly cutting it off. As the days drag into weeks, and it no longer seems clear when Mary Frances might die, the other characters drift along, too, breaking out into squabbles that never flare into anything significant: they're so many brush fires that obscure the main event, which involves Mary Frances' gradual fading away.

The director, Lila Neugebauer, handles these materials with supreme delicacy, getting polished performances from her cast. Even with a role that casts her as the passive observer of her family's drama, Lois Smith can't help being a dominating presence, infusing the action with the weariness of a woman who has led a long, turbulent life, and, tired of presiding over her family's dramas, is now ready for the curtain to fall. She also charts Mary Frances' physical decline with harrowing precision. Johanna Day's Fanny is a slippery character, at one point offering a no-strings gift of her savings to Alice yet uncorking a boundless rage when confronted with her very real failings. J. Smith-Cameron's Alice is scattered, but, in her way, equally malign: Convinced that Mary Frances never loved her, she thinks of herself as a saint, even when callously setting up Fanny for a humiliating fall. Mia Katigbak's Bonnie brings a cooling, welcome note of rationality to this atmosphere of rancor and revenge. There are also solid contributions from Heather Burns and Natalie Gold as Alice's daughters, one a TV star (and professional nervous wreck) and the other a rare voice of sanity; Paul Lazar as the conflict-averse Eddie, reflexively shrugging off any responsibility; Melle Powers as a home health care aide brought in when the infighting becomes dire; and Brian Miskell as a colleague of Bonnie's, a role that could be eliminated without materially affecting the play.

Dane Laffrey's two-level set, with its flowery drapes and furniture patterns, looks exactly like the house Mary Frances would own, and Tyler Micoleau's lighting adds a series of sensitively rendered time-of-day looks. Jessica Pabst's costumes are right in tune with each character's social level and earning ability. The sound designer, Daniel Kluger, also composed the jazzy little piano, drum, and strings interludes that help bridge the scenes.

The script is spot-on in its description of the language and practices of hospice care, and when the family occasionally manages to come together, the plainspoken way with which they face Mary Frances' impending death is entirely admirable. In its best moments, Peace for Mary Frances is a reliable guide to what one character calls "the Wild West of life," that time near the end when the usual niceties lose their meaning. But not even Neugebauer, one of the best directors working in New York today, can do much with a dud of a first-act curtain, a finale that leaves the audience confused about whether to applaud, and a structure that consists of so many wrong turns. Like Good for Otto, the previous attraction at the New Group, it is long on acting opportunities and short on drama. Let's hope it proves to be an inexperienced playwright's learning experience. -- David Barbour

(23 May 2018)

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