Monday, May 23, 2016

Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf

     Neil was interested in seeing Tracy Lettts’ Mary Page Marlowe (MPM) because it was premiering at Steppenwolf and we wanted a reason to visit Chicago; I was interested after I read a rave in The New York Times (yes, bloggers can be review whores).  Letts has deservedly earned a reputation as a major American dramatist and he’s focused on the middle of the country with intelligent, quirky characters finding themselves in situations that begin mundanely and turn horrific.  With Superior Donuts (2008) and now MPM, he’s examining the details of ordinary lives, the type of people watching the show or people that viewers know.

     Baby boomer Mary Page Marlowe, living in Dayton and then Lexington, leads a life that many women of her generation did (and do) in being raised by parents who came of age before World War II, listened to records and thought about boys in the ‘50s, graduated from college in the ‘60s, got married and worked professionally, had a family, divorced, and I won’t go on from there because I don’t want to spoil the story, which depends on its specific details and the order of their revelation.  Although these were turbulent times that changed the culture in the U.S., MPM is not a leader in any movement.  She’s an ordinary middle-class woman and this frustrates her, along with her tacitly acknowledged Catholic guilt, resulting in behavior she regrets.

Madeline Weinstein, Jack Edwards and Rebecca Spence
     Letts’ coup de theatre is to portray scenes from her life out of chronological order so that the audience has clues to figure out MPM’s personality and motivations and also renders what could be commonplace when told like an obituary as various startling and defining moments.  Director Anna D. Shapiro has cast six actresses as Mary over the decades.  Rebecca Spence and Blair Brown are standouts in the role.  I’d like to have seen more of Spence, but the next scene she might have played chronologically was cast with another actress.  I wish we could have seen Carrie Coon since she was fierce in Gone Girl (2014), but her understudy was playing instead and was very good, though her wigs looked like wigs.  

     All of the actors in the large cast performed beautifully, especially newcomer Madeline Weinstein as Mary’s daughter Wendy and the veteran Steppenwolf member Alan Wilder as Mary’s final husband.  Without ever underlining, the production demonstrates the time periods easily through Todd Rosenthal’s set design and Linda Roethke’s costumes.  Large screen projections were integral to the scene changes (as they were in the Shaw’s production of Sweet Charity last year), but Sven Ortel’s are decorative and thematic, rather than being descriptive.

The Final Scene with Blair Brown
     The one problem with the performance was its ending.  Rather than a dramatic climax, though there were fraught confrontations earlier, the final moment is one of quiet epiphany.  However, there wasn’t an arresting conclusion with lighting or sound to draw the applause it deserved.  An understated, eloquent play was left hanging and I think Shapiro needs to re-think the moments after the final image so that the audience can react properly.

MPM runs through June 5, 2016.

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