Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Peace for Mary Frances

Lily Thorne treads familiar ground in her new play, Peace for Mary Frances. Estranged members of a family gather due to the death of a parent. Old grudges are revisited, old wounds are reopened, and, well, you know. In this case, however, instead of assembling after the death (e.g., as in August, Osage County, Crimes of the Heart, and many more) they come to care for Mary Frances while she's still alive. Mary Frances, tired and in pain, is ready to die; she has decided to refuse further treatment. The family accept her decision, but they don't accept much of anything else.

Johanna Day, J. Smith-Cameron, Heather Burns 
Photo: Monique Carboni

One daughter, Fanny--the official fuck-up and ex-heroin user--has been living with Mary Frances but supposedly not taking good care of her. The other daughter, Alice--the quirky, angry one, who works as an astrologist--is jealous of the Fanny's relationship with their mother and neither trusts nor likes Fanny in general. The son, Eddie, who charges Mary Frances for helping with her paperwork, is largely oblivious. Alice's adult daughters are there too: one, a mother, is loving and able to push herself to do uncomfortable care tasks; the other, a famous actress, spends more time crying than helping.


Perhaps the main way Peace for Mary Frances distinguishes itself is its resolute lack of character growth, bridges mended, open conversations, and the other usual tropes of this genre. Instead, we get vivid examples of the mother's manipulations, the fuck-up daughter's fucked-up-ness, and the angry daughter's anger. They are all mean and unpleasant, and what little humor there is does not mitigate the dreariness of the play.

Another unique facet of Peace for Mary Frances is that the family is Armenian, and the horrors experienced by earlier generations during the Armenian genocide are referenced. The script has a long quote about exile from Edward Said that includes this sentence: "It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted."

Perhaps we are supposed to see the family members as exiles, from their homes, their childhoods, and each other? Or perhaps the family is suffering from trickle-down damage? It is hard to know exactly what Thorne is trying to say. Before seeing that quotation, I would have said that the theme is "some families are awful and never get better."

[end of spoilers]

I am not someone who demands happy endings. But if you're going to ask me to sit through a grueling two hours and forty-five minutes, you've got to give me something. A hint of growth. An atom of reconciliation. A tiny lesson learned. Or particularly good writing, directing, and acting.

Peace for Mary Frances is reasonably well-written, and the cast is quite good, as you would expect from Lois Smith, Joanna Day, J. Smith-Cameron, Heather Burns, Paul Lazar, and Natalie Gold. The direction, by Lila Neurgebauer, is fine. But they are not good enough to justify nearly three hours of stagnant misery.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 8th row)
Show-Score: 75

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