Saturday, August 3, 2019

Summit Performance Indianapolis' 'Mary Jane' displays parenthood put to the ultimate test

Any parent can justly claim that parenthood is challenging, but some who take on that role with the same optimism as their peers find themselves not merely challenged, but in a perpetual iron man contest. There's no victory in sight, and the competition is mainly internal.

Amy Herzog's "Mary Jane," the second full production of Summit Performance Indianapolis, is in the middle of a three-weekend run at Phoenix Theatre. The title character is a single mom to a toddler who can't toddle, a severely disabled boy whose needs are daunting and whose "good days" are a matter of luck and unceasing commitment.

When we first see her, she's talking a mile a minute to her apartment building's super, Ruthie, who's trying to fix a stopped-up kitchen sink. The thought crossed my mind: Oh, watch out!  This is going to be one of those protagonists we need to get over being annoyed with, but she'll grow on us. We'll get used to her. She'll win us over. On and on she goes to Ruthie: something about being fascinated with break-dancers in the subway; this is someone hyperexcited about her observations. Another quirky heroine?

But Herzog has created a character who, in Bridget Haight's performance Friday night, is almost instantly lovable, despite her complexity. Her level of self-sacrifice is a given, yet it's more than the default setting of the drama. The audience constantly learns more about Mary Jane, and our understanding becomes something we feel we've almost lived with. That's an illusion, of course, and harboring it is almost an insult to anyone seeing this show who may actually face the kind of demands Mary Jane responds to so heroically.

Under Lauren Briggeman's direction, the play quickly pulls us into its emotional vortex. There seems to be no manipulation or theatrical arabesques about either the raw material or its handling. Underscored by this production's no-nonsense scenic design, Herzog presents the realities of nurturing a seriously ill child in detail: the constant monitoring, the exigencies of treatment, fine-tuning levels of medication, crisis management, scheduling issues and agendas, the disruption of all other aspects of the primary caretaker's personal life, the extreme difficulty of self-care.

But underlying it all is a mother's love: Alex is never seen in "Mary Jane," but he shapes every aspect of Mary Jane's experience. He draws from her a commitment deeper than most love relationships. Her ex-husband failed
Maura Lisabeth Malloy, Nathalie Cruz, Bridget Haight, Jan Lucas, and Kelsey Johnson.
to adjust to the shock and is long gone. Mute and physically disabled in the extreme, Alex is his mother's anchor and tutor, a perpetual-motion fitness machine for her character, her most enduring test of life's worthiness.

Haight's mastery of the role extends to every facial expression and the moments of awkwardness and frustration that interrupt her relentless interaction with the world. The rest of the cast of course is charged with meeting Mary Jane's ferocity and resolve with portrayals that give her something firm to play against. They are just about flawless at every turn. Each of them takes on two roles apiece, and none of those eight characters is sketchy. All are instrumental in fleshing out Mary Jane's story, whether they are mitigating her challenges, bringing her up short, or putting her through empathy calisthenics.

As Sherry, a home nurse whose devotion to the case extends well beyond her shifts, Nathalie Cruz represented crucial support as someone whose manner is both professional and affectionate. As Kat, a music therapist at the hospital where Alex has become a familiar patient, Kelsey Johnson shifted adroitly from a temperamental flightiness and tendency to treat her work as a job bound by scheduling to bonding with Mary Jane, in one of the show's most intense scenes.

As Chaya, a tough-talking New Yorker in the hospital waiting room, Maura Lisabeth Malloy helped move Mary Jane's pathos onto a more clear-eyed level of compassion as a mother in the same situation, but reliant on her religious community for sustenance as well as an intact family including healthy children. She is an aid to a delicately introduced spiritual dimension in "Mary Jane," which prepares for the final scene, in which Jan Lucas as a newly minted Buddhist monk serving as a hospital chaplain visits the care-worn mother. Someone once said, "If a man learns theology before he learns to be a human being, he will never become a human being." Mary Jane got the order right.

We learn by now Mary Jane has her own health demons to contend with. Plot is not an important element in the play, so I feel somewhat free from the need to avoid spoilers. The last scene is so beautifully staged (with lighting by the ubiquitous genius Laura E. Glover) that I might forgivably at least mention (without detailed description of the symptoms) that the heroine's chief demon is migraine.

The show's finale illustrates an insight that Guy Davenport mentions in his essay on Michel de Montaigne, the great 16th-century French writer. The serendipity of reading brought this to me the day I saw "Mary Jane."  Referencing Montaigne's persistent battle with kidney stones, Davenport observes: "With the occlusion of the body there is an anesthesia of sensibilities." Physically occluded by migraine, her situation administers this anesthesia symptomatically to Mary Jane at the very end.

Nature has come up with a respite for this plucky woman that she fully deserves, despite its disorienting effects. "Mary Jane" deserves our attention as well, continuing the remarkable launch Summit Performance Indianapolis has made with two outstanding productions in just two years.

[Photo by Raincliffs Photography]

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