Herzog's Mary Jane sends powerful message about illness and death

The painful facts of life do not need to be life-altering in the world of Mary Jane, Amy Herzog’s potent new play running at the New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 15.

The titular mother, played by the wondrous and talented Carrie Coon, is the primary caretaker of her chronically ill son, Alex, whom we never see at any point in the work, which speaks to the play’s  powerful effect. This seems like a situation ripe for melodrama, but Herzog’s clever writing deftly strikes away any potential risks for long, sappy meditations into what it means to be a caretaker for someone who may never get better.

However, to Mary Jane, her friend and Alex’s nurse Sherrie, — played by Liza Colón-Zayas — and to the audience, he is still a beautiful boy with something “going on upstairs.”

It is a welcoming change to see a character like Mary Jane onstage. Frankly, she is no stoic martyr and no suffering cynic. One gets the impression that the kind, slightly scatterbrained, anecdotal Mary Jane is still the same woman she was before Alex was born, rather than some new person forged of tragedy and trauma.

Taking care of Alex is no easy feat, with Mary Jane needing long leaves from work and a nurse at times when she does have to be away. It also speaks to the understanding of people who can comprehend what a trial it can be to care for someone each day.

She is also not a fan of people taking responsibility for things they cannot control. When Sherrie’s niece, Amelia, played by Danaya Esperanza, desperately apologizes for not making an important call fast enough and for Alex’s state, Mary Jane can only ask for what she could possibly be sorry.

Life is blunt in the world of Mary Jane, so it is perhaps no wonder that Mary Jane does not seem to see her life as an acclimatization of new conditions, but rather as a logical series of actions in the wake of something unexpected.

Her ex-husband, Danny, ran off when he was unable to cope with Alex’s condition and Mary Jane is in no way bitter toward him. If anything, she understands his decision but also understands that Danny’s decision was not her own decision.

She is also a little too forgiving of the unseen Donna, one of Alex’s rotating nurses who tends to drift off during the job, much to chagrin of the loving yet hardworking Sherrie.

Mary Jane’s life is no bitter pill, beautifully evoked in the scenic design of Laura Jellinek, who creates a small yet loved apartment in sea-foam green that is lived in as well as loved.

It would have been easy to make Mary Jane’s life a barren landscape, but the ever-present mother still works, has friends, checks in on their lives and even helps other mothers with disabled children learn the ropes of navigating an unhelpful bureaucracy. She is not endlessly wise, however.

In the show’s much more nerve-wracking second act, she receives counsel from the hilarious and knowing Chaya, who describes with tact the strange dilemma of friends and family offering help but having little power.

“I tell them to pray for me,” Chaya tells her Orthodox Jewish community, who is just as helpless as people without faith when it comes to things as undefeatable as mortality.

That second act is more than just an ersatz therapy session. The situation Mary Jane finds herself in is a thankless one, with the honest direction of Anne Kauffman, who seems to do better in stranger, fringier works than her big revivals at the New York City Center and on Broadway.

The ominous lighting by Japhy Weideman instills a sense of bubbling worry in the play. As usual, everyone attempts to be as helpful as they can, but it is almost as if both the rose-tinted glasses that they wear and the eternal worry of professionals is poison to Mary Jane’s soul.

The only person who truly offers some measure of peace is Tenkei, played by Brenda Wehle, a Buddhist chaplain who simply sees things as they are.

Mary Jane and Tenkei’s conversations serve as a balm to the stress of the second act, emphasizing not pain and morbidity, but the truth of bad things and the unusual way time seems to flow when we worry for those we love.

For a play with a 95-minute runtime, Mary Jane feels much longer, to its benefit. It does not feel overly condensed and every scene glides into the next with ease. It is also the kindest play to be running off-Broadway this season, a beautifully empathetic work that does not layer treacle even in the most depressing of scenarios.

Herzog’s play is not some happy-go-lucky, loving journey through illness and eventual health. If anything, it is a well-composed letter to everyone going through the day with the world on their shoulders.