Peace for Mary Frances Comes at a Cost

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Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron. Photo by Monique Carboni.

The Review: The New Group’s Peace for Mary Frances

By Ross

Mary Frances is 90 years old and fading fast.  She lives on her own in a house in Connecticut but is rarely alone as she is really in no shape to take care of herself.  Her one daughter seems to always be there, but she has a few problems of her own, including not being a very attentive care giver to her mother. Mary Frances, played with precision by the magnificent Lois Smith (PH’s Marjorie Prime) has mothered quite the dysfunctional dynasty around her. Financial aware and stable, Mary Frances lords over her flock like King Lear. Born to refugees fleeing the Armenian genocide, a war seems to have exploding out from her and the way she has raised her children. Within her home, the three generations of troubled women is heating up discontent quite fast. There’s no ‘Cordelia’ in sight in Lily Thorne’s complicated new play, Peace for Mary Frances. The peace she wants between her family members; her daughters who are at extreme odds with one another, her passively detached grown son, and her two grand daughters, one of which is also a mother, seems as elusive as her own comfort and last wish. Mary Frances wants to pass away peacefully at home in bed as she sleeps. Being surrounded by her family seems less important in totality as she seems to ignite arguments without thinking, tossing one aside whenever she’s feeling slighted or ignored. But her dream is colliding head on with reality as her care becomes second to the children’s battle for their mother’s alignment and the family’s legacy. Guilt and greed play a stronger role in this house than altruistic affection. And that’s on a good night.

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

Directed by the phenomenal Lila Neugebauer (At Home at the Zoo), Mary Frances is surrounded by turmoil, and Neugebauer does conflict better than most. Ratchetting up the clashes at every moment she can, this play starts to wear itself down in the rinse and repeat trap of a tornado, rehashing and regrouping, just to slap the same confrontation in front of us once again. Solutions are few and far between, and none make all that much sense or try to rectify the core problem. They just bandage up the discord in a ridiculous contract while they all, including Mary Frances, wait for death to come. Johanna Day (Broadway’s Sweat) as daughter Fanny, does messed up anger like she has a PhD in turmoil, and she’s breathtaking to watch stomp and steal around the house like a teenager aching for a battle. She gets it from her overwhelmed and needy sister, Alice, played with a hurt bottled-up-anger by the wonderful J. Smith Cameron (TNG’s The Starry Messenger).  The two, along side the lump-in-a-chair brother, Eddie, played with a psychologically odd detached presence by Paul Lazar (Soho Rep’s Samara) live in a chaotic battleground trying to win affection and grace from a mother who can’t see how her behavior is affecting and damaging them.  She’s too wrapped up in finances and equality, while playing favorites amongst the three and rehashing old disgruntled arguments as she knows no other way. She wants Fanny to stay close and clean from addiction, more than almost anything else, but what she has against Alice is more abstract and hard to pin down. Their battle is like an awkward tense hug and a slap, all rolled up together and stained with guilt, neglect, and hurt. This was decades in the making, but not unpacked for our understanding. No one is easy to love in this family, as everyone reacts, not from a place of empathy, but of self-centered service, grabbing rugs and connections when they can, and holding it out to the others as if to say, “Look what I got!”

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Natalie Gold, J. Smith-Cameron, Mia Katigbak, Brian Miskell. Photo by Monique Carboni.

The next generation, the two daughters of Alice, seem at first to have made it out fairly intact, especially the new mother Rosie, portrayed quietly by Natalie Gold (LCT’s Kill Floor). She shares a beautifully crafted scene with her single sister, Helen, played solidly by Heather Burns (Roundabout’s Dinner with Friends).  Helen seems to have made it big as a television actress, but might have more in common with her violent Aunt Fanny then anyone really wants to acknowledge. Her aggression and discomfort seems to come out of nowhere, repeatedly filling the space with surprise and maniac action, leaving us all scratching our heads, and wondering just how demented is this family.  The two workers from Hospice care, Mia Katigbak (NAATCO’s Awake and Sing!) and Brain Miskell (Barrow’s The Flick) as Bonnie and Michael, do a fine job, relaying and retracting information from this family, highlighting the mess they are all living in, while merely trying to facilitate Mary Frances’ wish to die a peaceful death in her own bed. There’s obvious trouble in the house and in this dysfunctional family, but the plan towards safety is out of their reach and beyond their pay grade.

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Lois Smith, J. Smith-Cameron, Paul Lazar. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Running in and out, and up and down the stairs from living room/kitchen to Mary Frances’ bedroom, courtesy of some fine realism work by the design team: scenic design: Dane Laffrey (LCT’s The Harvest); costumes: Jessica Pabst (PH’s A Life); lighting: Tyler Micoleau (Public’s Miss You Like Hell); and music and sound: Daniel Kluger (ATC’s Animal), the family plays out their individual backstabbing plots, worthy of a lesser Shakespearian Lear.  Melle Powers (Signature’s The Old Friends) as Clara the home care nursing aide is the only one who seems to be working from an honest place of empathy and solidness, willing to stand up to the insanity around her and do the right thing. She might be the Cordelia come in from some other land to teach the two sisters what compassion looks like. The play keeps trudging forward towards the end in such a repetitive manner that we start to wish the end would come sooner rather than later, as about half way through we know as much as we need to know about this family and their crippling dynamics.  When Peace does finally come for Mary Frances, we are as relieved as everyone on stage, and thankful to be finished with this well-acted but drawn out production of a play that needs a bit more concise focus to make it worthy of our attention and time.

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Melle Powers and Johanna Day in Lily Thorne’s Peace for Mary Frances, directed by Lila Neugebauer. This world premiere Off-Broadway production from The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center. http://www.thenewgroup.org. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.
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