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Anyone who has observed the process knows that dying can be messy and hard. It can also be stretched out and tedious, two aspects captured all too vividly in Lily Thorne’s drama being given its world premiere by off-Broadway’s The New Group. Largely concentrating on a family’s bickering as it contends with the slow demise of its matriarch, Peace for Mary Frances proves so (pardon the pun) lifeless that you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wishing its main character would get on with it.
It’s a shame, because a formidable ensemble of talented actors has been assembled for this production, staged by white-hot director Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves, Edward Albee’s at Home at the Zoo). Foremost among them is 87-year-old national treasure Lois Smith, whose career dates back no less than 66 years. The veteran actress has been enjoying a professional renaissance lately with her memorable turns in the stage and screen versions of Marjorie Prime and her indelible performance as a good-humored nun in Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird. She’s no less superb here as an elderly woman resigned to her fate.
“All I want to do is be comfortable,” Mary Frances tells a hospice nurse. “I’m not a fighter. I’m not fighting this.”
The cast also includes such wonderful actresses as J. Smith Cameron, Johanna Day and Heather Burns, all of whom do excellent work. But their efforts are not enough to lift the turgid dramatics of this work by newcomer Thorne, a Brooklyn College student making her professional playwrighting debut. Unfortunately, her inexperience is revealed in the piece’s tonal inconsistency and awkward transitions, suggesting that it would have benefited from further development before receiving such a prominent production.
Set in the West Hartford, Connecticut, home of its title character, Peace for Mary Frances depicts her tense and sometimes raucous interactions with family members, including her perpetually warring daughters Alice (Cameron) and Fanny (Day); her son Eddie (Paul Lazar), who involves himself as little as possible; and Alice’s daughters Helen (Burns), the star of a television series, and Rosie (Natalie Gold), who has recently given birth to Mary Frances’ great-granddaughter.
Her primary caretaker has been Fanny, a recovering drug addict who sometimes fails to notice such details as her mother’s oxygen tank not working properly. During the final stages, Alice moves in and assumes responsibility, only to become increasingly frazzled by the physical and emotional demands placed on her.
The play does provide a convincingly realistic depiction of what it’s like to pass away slowly, reflected in the explanation by a hospice worker (Mia Katigbak) of the chilling term “terminal sedation,” or the family members constantly repeating the mantra, “When in doubt, medicate!” The scenes involving the interactions between Mary Frances as she’s nearing the end and the solicitous home healthcare aide (Melle Powers) have a touchingly tender quality.
The constant squabbling among the family feels real enough, but the playwright fails to make it sufficiently involving. The dialogue too often strains for cheap laughs, such as when Rosie tries to comfort her upset grandmother by telling her, “We don’t want you to suffer and die. We just want you to die.” And Act II becomes increasingly tiresome in its attempts to infuse dark comedy into the proceedings.
That’s not to say that the play isn’t very moving at times, if only by dint of subject matter that will certainly hit home for many in the audience who have gone through similarly painful experiences. But by the time the lengthy evening reaches its conclusion, you’ll be glad that peace has finally come for Mary Frances. You’ll just wish it had come sooner.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Heather Burns, Johanna Day, Natalie Gold, Mia Katigbak, Paul Lazar, Brian Miskell, Melle Powers, Lois Smith, J. Smith Cameron
Playwright: Lily Thorne
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Music & sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Presented by The New Group
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