Chicago Theatre Review
How Do You Measure a Life?
Mary Page Marlowe – Goodman Theatre
A young mother sits in the booth of a restaurant. The conversation she’s about to have isn’t easy or new. She’s about to explain to her young son Louis and her teenage daughter Wendy that she and her husband have fallen out of love and are divorcing. Their decision to separate has been made, she explains, with the children’s welfare in mind. At first, the kids will stay with their father in Ohio, in order to finish the school year. In the summer they’ll join their mother, Mary Page, in Lexington, Kentucky, where she’ll be working at a new job and beginning a new life. Understandably, Wendy freaks out, but little Louis seems unfazed by the news.
Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Tracy Letts opens his new play with this singular scene, but it’s merely one piece of this dramatic puzzle. The story flows back and forth in time. It tells the tale of an ordinary woman whose life appears before us in snippets of individual scenes. It’s much like viewing a series of photographs coming to life, or examining interesting chapters or short stories drawn from a book of memories. Together they paint a portrait of a woman whose life is almost over.
This play, having its much anticipated world premiere at the theatre where Letts is also an ensemble member, is about how a person measures her life. It objectively recalls various events and replays each of them, haphazardly scattered through time. The production employs a couple of unique gimmicks. For one, the playwright doesn’t unfold his story chronologically. The scene in the restaurant actually happens somewhere in the middle of Mary Page Marlowe’s life. It jumps from decade to decade in seemingly random order. Each scene ends in a kind of still life photo of Mary Page, as it then changes to another place and time.
Another gimmick Letts uses is in casting six different actresses to play the titular character at various ages. Each lady is a special talent and brings so much to her individual scene(s). Young Caroline Heffernan plays a 12-year-old Mary Page Marlowe being criticized by her mother for her lack of musical talent. Annie Munch is the 19-year-old college student version of the character having her tarot cards interpreted by a friend. Carrie Coons is Mary Page Marlowe, both at ages 27 and 36, leaving the bed of her boss and then, in another scene, expressing to her psychiatrist how she feels life has unfolded without ever having made her own decisions. Rebecca Spence is the 40-year-old mother explaining the terms of their divorce to her kids in a restaurant. Laura T. Fisher is a resigned, 50-year-old Mary Page facing the consequences of another DUI arrest. Blair Brown plays the titular character at age 59, enjoying an ordinary evening at home with her third husband; she then plays Mary Page ten years later, gracefully accepting that her life less ordinary is coming to an end.
The excellent actresses playing Mary Page Marlowe are supported by a large ensemble of equally fine actors. They include Ian Barford, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Amanda Drinkall, Jack Edwards, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Tess Frazer, Keith D. Gallagher, Sandra Marquez, Ariana Venturi, Madeline Weinstein, Alan Wilder and Gary Wilmes.
The play is artistic. The story is fascinating. The acting, thanks to artistic director Anna D. Shapiro’s superb direction, is natural, honest and unforced. Each scene unfolds smoothly and clearly and is stunning in and of itself; however, the whole isn’t as strong as its components. It’s a play that undoubtedly strongly speaks more to women than men, and especially those who’ve already experienced a good deal of life. Todd Rosenthal’s simple, ever-shifting set design is tastefully understated, yet fulfills the needs of each scene. Exquisite illumination, designed by Marcus Doshi, and Richard Woodbury’s expressive sound design, sweetened with original music by Diana Lawrence, add color and tone to each scene, as well.
Tracy Letts’ most recent play doesn’t have the animation and histrionics of his longer, Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage Country;” however its gentle storytelling is worthwhile. The pieces of this puzzle, scattered throughout this 85-minute production, add up to a life. It’s not about a queen, a celebrity or a madwoman. It’s about an ordinary woman’s journey. When examined in small bites, observed without judgment, it’s fulfilling to behold. Audiences, especially female theatergoers, will recognize many of these moments and understand how one’s choices always bring unexpected results and consequences. So how do you measure a life? Mr. Letts shows us that it’s not by examining one, single event; rather it’s by sorting through a collection of individual moments that enable us to see the whole person.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 9-May 29 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in their Downstairs Venue, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com