By Lily Thorne; Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Produced by The New Group
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.17.18
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Ken Kaissar on 6.13.18
Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron in Peace for Mary Frances. Photo by Monique Carbon.
BOTTOM LINE: Peace for Mary Frances is an excellent production of a complicated and challenging new play that features virtuoso actors.
I’m a sucker for great acting. There are a handful of actors whose work I feel privileged to have seen on stage, and Lois Smith is at the top of my list. At 87 years old, Smith is a giant of the American theatre. An impeccable virtuoso, she is to acting what Vladimir Horowitz was to the piano. Unlike Horowitz, however, her copious work of the stage and screen is under-celebrated. With the incredible talent of J. Smith-Cameron and Johanna Day supporting her, Lois Smith shines bright enough to light up the entire theatre district. If you want to see acting as good as it can be, head over to the Pershing Square Signature Center to see Peace for Mary Frances. But don’t delay; the show closes June 17.
Mary Frances (Lois Smith) is at the end of her life. Suffering from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), her lungs are slowly filling with water. Her financially and emotionally troubled middle-aged children (Johanna Day, J. Smith Cameron and Paul Lazar) arrive to provide end-of-life care, but even at this late hour, they fight tooth and nail competing for Mom’s affection and financial resources. Lily Thorne’s intriguing play is about the duty to care for our aging parents while fighting the injustice they show us by irrationally favoring our undeserving siblings.
Just like life, Thorne’s script is complicated and filled with contradictions. But these complexities offer wonderful fodder for these first-rate actors to work through and make sense of. No performer in this cast has an easy job; they bend over backwards to make their characters’ turbulent emotional lives intelligible to the audience. Under the direction of Off-Broadway favorite Lila Neugebauer, The New Group spares no expense on this elaborate production. While Dane Laffrey’s set is as complex and interesting to study as Thorne’s play, I found myself oddly annoyed by poor sight lines. More than one acting area was completely invisible, even from a seat reserved for reviewers.
Thorne’s play is one of the most ambitious and complex stories I’ve seen all season. At the same time, this gorgeous and expensive production may be a bit hasty‑-the play could definitely benefit from a few more rewrites, as the text provides us with information that feels tacked on rather than fleshed out. For example, the family is described as Armenian, but the play is conspicuously devoid of the ethnic seasoning needed to make this detail ring true. And although one character is described as suffering from OCD, Thorne neglects to build in any moments that might lead us to sense something is off before we are explicitly told about her condition.
With a running time of over two and a half hours, Peace for Mary Frances may be trying for anyone seeking obvious thrills and thrilling plot twists. But anyone who relishes great acting won’t find a better ensemble to feast on this season.
(Peace for Mary Frances plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through June 17, 2018. The running time is 2 hours 35 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $75 and are available at thenewgroup.org or by calling 212-279-4200.)
Peace for Mary Frances is by Lily Thorne. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Set Design is by Dane Laffrey. Costume Design is by Jessica Pabst. Lighting Design is Tyler Micoleau. Music & Sound Design is by Daniel Kluger. Stage Manager is Valerie A. Peterson.
The cast is Heather Burns, Johanna Day, Natalie Gold, Mia Katigbak, Paul Lazar, Brian Miskell, Melle Powers, Lois Smith and J. Smith-Cameron.