Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through June 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In the first scene of the world premiere of Tracy Letts’ “Mary Page Marlowe” at Steppenwolf Theatre, the title character , age 40 (Rebecca Spence), sits in a booth at a diner explaining to her young son, Louis (Jack Edwards), and teenage daughter, Wendy (Madeline Weinstein), that in the wake of her divorce, she’s moving from their home in Dayton, Ohio, to Lexington, Kentucky, for a job as an accountant, and that they will be joining her at the end of the school year. In the last scene, a 63-year-old MPM (Blair Brown), who is picking up some cleaning, describes a quilt she found with many different panels and, in the center, a woman with her back to us and her head bowed.
Between these two points, the life of this unremarkable woman unfolds as a seemingly random series of pivotal and inconsequential moments—but not at all in order. Like a crazy quilt, it has to be pieced together. And like the woman in the center, MPM remains something of a mystery to herself as well as to us. In fact, she frequently laments that she doesn’t seem to know who she is or have any control over her life, a theme that’s reinforced by everything from a college tarot card reading to a session with a shrink (Kirsten Fitzgerald).
Playing with the notion that we’re different people at different points in our lives, Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro cast six different actors as MPM at different ages. Besides Spence (44 as well as 40) and Brown (59 and 69 as well as 63), they include Caroline Heffernan (12), Annie Munch (19), Carrie Coon (27 and 36), and Laura T. Fisher (50). There was to have been a seventh, a baby Mary Page, but that was nixed after preview audiences were disturbed by the presence of an infant during the violent argument between the character’s parents, Ed Marlowe (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), a World War II veteran suffering from untreated PTSD, and Roberta Marlowe (Amanda Drinkwell), his angry, bitter wife.
Naturally, their discord—not to mention alcohol abuse—has a negative impact on the young MPM, but we don’t learn the causes of her unhappiness until after we see the effects, or at least some of them. The 90-or-so minutes become a kind of detective story with us trying to figure out the sequence of events leading to her three marriages and two divorces, promiscuity, alcoholism, and jail time, not to mention the impact on her two children.
But this experiment in form is a double-edged sword. As intriguing as unraveling the mystery becomes, it also distances us from the character, perhaps deliberately. In addition, there are some big holes in the tale. Specifically, given the trauma she endures, we have no idea how MPM manages to come out the other side and find a measure of happiness and peace with her third husband, Andy (Alan Wilder), and thereafter. There’s a hint that taking responsibility for the harm she caused others—and doing her time—was the turning point, but that’s not quite convincing.
I also found myself thinking that if the scenes were in chronological order, the play would come across as just another soap opera. MPM may be presented as ordinary or unremarkable, but when so much misfortune is packed into so little time, it has a concentrated power.
Counteracting the soapy undertones is the care with which the individual scenes are crafted and the beauty with which they’re acted by the large cast. Director Shapiro and the MPMs do a fine job of striking a balance between continuity of character and her changing personality, and the fluid staging—featuring Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, Marcus Doshi’s lighting design, and Linda Roethke’s costumes—allows the action to flow smoothly, with one MPM shifting to almost seamlessly to the next.
There are a few snafus, among them the exceedingly low-key, unsatisfying ending. Yes, it relies on an intriguing metaphor, but it also leaves us hanging—so much so that some audience members didn’t know whether or not the show was over. It might be better to cap the evening with the 69-year-old MPM in the hospital, but maybe Letts thought that was too conventional. He also may be the victim of his own success: After the enormous impact of the multi-award-winning “August: Osage County,” expectations run very high for everything else he writes, and “Mary Page Marlowe” seems slight by comparison.
Still, I recommend seeing it. Each of the actors playing MPM creates a vivid portrait of the deeply flawed yet sympathetic woman in a remarkably short amount of time on stage. Not an easy task, and they all deserve a lot of credit, as does the rest of the ensemble.