Sunday, May 01, 2016

Letts' Look Beneath the Surface: 'Mary Page Marlowe' Provides a Masterful Glimpse of Life, Well, Lived -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mary Page Marlowe
a world premiere play
by Tracy Letts
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 5

I firmly believe--and as represented in part by this blog, often advocate--that appreciating culture, and attending theater, can make us better people.

Generally, I would espouse this more in a macro sense, in terms of the literacy, perspectives, enrichment, emotional uplift and even psychological sustenance the arts can provide.

Especially in the realm of dramatic theater, individual works can often offer profound insights that adjust our overall outlooks, but in subtler ways, the cumulative effects of seeing a variety of plays--or just a few special ones--may ultimately be more pronounced in shaping our beings.

In 1993, when going to the theater was a rarity for me, I attended a play that may have been well-reviewed at the time, but undoubtedly, the venue being in Evanston near my Skokie home, and the availability of inexpensive tickets, were more greatly motivating factors.

That play was Killer Joe, which was the first play written by Tracy Letts to be produced anywhere. And though I can't acutely recall his performance, it starred Michael Shannon, who today well may be the very best actor working anywhere.

I would continue to go to the theater only sparingly until the 21st century arrived, but it seems plausible that my fondness for Killer Joe somehow factored into my vociferous embrace of the dramatic arts since then. I have now seen over 300 different plays, not counting musicals or operas, etc.

Of those 300+ plays, one that will always stand out is August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, which I saw in 2007 as a World Premiere at Steppenwolf under the direction of Anna Shapiro.

The play would go onto great success on Broadway with much the same cast, including Deanna Dunagan, who probably gave the best dramatic performance I've ever seen onstage. She would win the 2008 Tony Award for Best Actress in a play, while Shapiro garnered Best Direction honors for the Best New Play winner.

Letts, who I've also seen as an actor in several Steppenwolf productions, is now deservedly seen as one of the best playwrights of his generation, having also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for August: Osage County. He'salso written Bug, The Man From Nebraska, Superior Donuts and, as world premiering at Steppenwolf, Mary Page Marlowe. (Besides August, I've only seen the last two.) 

Since the passing of his mother is said to have factored into the writing of Mary Page Marlowe, I'll mention that Billie Letts was herself a noted author, best-known for her first novel, Where the Heart Is, published when she was well into her 50s.

Now it certainly wouldn't be wrong for you at this point to be wondering when I'm ever going to get around to reviewing Mary Page Marlowe and/or picking up on my opening strain about how watching theater can make us better people.

Well, Tracy Letts' phenomenal new work centers around its fictional title character, played at various stages in her life by six actresses and a non-real baby.

Through Mary Page Marlowe, whose approximately 75 years of life are chronicled in a non-linear series of scenes, Letts seems to be saying that who we are, what we do and how we're (mis)perceived by others--at any point in time--can be hugely affected by previous moments in our lives, large and small.

Hence, perhaps if I'd never gone to see Killer Joe at the Next Theater Lab in 1993, I wouldn't have gone to Steppenwolf to see August: Osage County in 2007, or have been fascinated to note Deanna Dunagan sitting at the next table at Pizza Capri near Steppenwolf--I didn't bother her--on Sunday before the Mary Page Marlowe matinee.

And maybe if I didn't appreciate how immeasurably arts, culture, entertainment and specifically theater has enhanced my being on a macro level, it would be harder to recognize how masterfully Mary Page Marlowe affected my purview on a micro level.

But although it is only 90 minutes compared to August: Osage County's more than 3 hours, and largely lacks the type of overt intensity, hysterics, mayhem and even humor that characterized that play and Killer Joe, I believe Mary Page Marlowe to be the best Tracy Letts play I've ever seen. (Yes, that's saying quite a lot.)

And I really think it could make me a better person, though that probably isn't for me to judge.

The play--for which I was able to get a perfectly acceptable "Pit Seat" in advance for just $30--opens with Mary Page Marlowe, at this point around 40 and played by Rebecca Spence, explaining to her son and daughter that she and her husband have decided to divorce. She, who we later learn is a CPA, will be moving to Lexington, Kentucky from Dayton, Ohio, where her ex will remain, requiring the kids to shuffle among the two locales, with ramifications that will subsequently unfold.

(Note: I will use MPM as an abbreviation for Mary Page Marlowe, the full birth name by which she's mostly referred throughout, despite 3 marriages.)

We next see MPM as a beautiful college student--played by Annie Munch--in the late 1960s, as her roommates read Tarot cards and discuss her boyfriend, desires and dreams, including seeing Paris.

With Carrie Coon--who happens to be Letts' wife and was wonderful in the Gone Girl movie--Caroline Heffernan, Blair Brown, Laura T. Fisher and a baby doll also playing MPM, it's understandable that I was asked if Mary Page Marlowe is akin to I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic in which various actors combine to depict the legendary singer/songwriter.

This isn't a silly analogy, but there was much more artistic symbolism at play in the way that movie's director, Todd Haynes, used Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw to compile Dylan, who was never specifically named in the film.

A more apt comparison would be the way Paul Dano and John Cusack split playing Brian Wilson at younger and older stages of his life in Love & Mercy, perhaps thematically blended with what director Richard Linklater did in creating Boyhood over a 12-year span, allowing the same actors to age and change along with the world around them.

It might've been easy for Letts to tickle the audience with overt references to cultural touchstones throughout MPM's life, but though there is some of this, it is subtler and slyer than, say, mentioning The Beatles, Vietnam or Rubik's Cube.

I'll merely cite Caroline Heffernan delightfully singing "Tammy" by Debbie Reynolds as Mary Page at age 12, and Blair Brown aptly depicting the confusion some in their 60s may have had (or still do) in understanding how to use DVRs.

But Letts, again working with director Anna Shapiro--now also Steppenwolf's artistic director--does a really shrewd job in surveying a life by mixing the relatively mundane (remote controls, 45 rpm singles, hair curlers) with several weighty issues faced by Mary and others, including marital discord, divorce, illness, death, alcoholism and more.

It's to each of the MPM actresses' great credit that the characterization feels believable, seamless and holistic throughout; I realized post-show that I wrongly perceived who was playing Mary at various stages, but that's really a compliment to how well she was woven by all. There are also several fine performances among the 12 "non-Mary" members of the cast, including Amanda Drinkall, Ian Barford, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Alan Wilder, among others.

The likewise glowing reviews of this show by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune and Barbara Vitello in the Daily Herald have headlines referencing the title character's life as "unremarkable" and "ordinary."

Yet while this isn't grossly inaccurate--and my strongest takeaway from Mary Page Marlowe is to remember that everyone I encounter has, far beyond my surface impressions, a backstory I know nothing about, which may be extremely admirable, empathetic, tragic, etc.--in addition to the allusions mentioned above, I also couldn't help think of how Beautiful somewhat similarly depicts Carole King as a woman growing through various stages of her life, or be reminded that while truly remarkable, the late Prince was also, obviously, human.

In other words, in many ways the differences between the "ordinary" and the "extraordinary" often aren't all that tremendous.

During a scene in which Coon as MPM is in a psychiatrist's office, expressing regrets over relationships and aspirations that hadn't turned out as hoped, she remarks:

"Someone else could have written my diary."

But when the shrink asks Mary what she thinks her life would look like had she made different choices, she can't really come up with clear re-routings or where else they might have led.

And part of what makes Mary Page Marlowe so very compelling is that Letts avoids letting it become Psych 101, in terms of experiences, environments and decisions presaging consequences in obvious ways.

Sure, depicted substance abuse issues have guessable antecedents, but none are ever clearly delineated, and while some may imagine Mary's string of broken relationships is due to this or that happening in her past, a decision she makes early on seems entirely at odds with what will come later in her life.

I was also struck by--and had corroborated post-show by those a good bit older than me--the relative rarity of a female college student in the 1960s choosing to become an accountant; this was not exactly an "ordinary" choice.

I also wondered if Letts had indicated in his script that Mary Page Marlowe must be white and rather attractive--I don't know if he knew his wife would star in the play--as I could easily imagine this piece hitting quite different notes, yet still being terrific, if the title character was embodied far unlike she is at Steppenwolf.

Anyway, this is a rather long and winding review, but the best plays are the ones that give you plenty of food for thought, and Mary Page Marlowe--though deceptively simple in its narrative if not its structure--is quite the smorgasbord.

Even if the ending feels a bit undernourished. (I might have closed with MPM back as a pre-teen singing "Que Sera, Sera," which will make sense once you see the play.)

Speaking of food, just prior to starting this review, I noticed in the Chicago Tribune that a man named Burt Katz had died. He had run a pizzeria, Burt's Place, that I'd gone to a few times, and without any derision meant, I would have described him as "an iconoclastic curmudgeon with a ZZ Top beard."

But the obituary also reveals a nugget I find truly fascinating. In their 20s, Katz and his wife Sharon--who both went to high school with my mom--went on a yearlong, around-the-world honeymoon road trip, starting in Japan and including driving through Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, among other countries.

Who knows what this fostered in ways obvious and clandestine, and how lessons learned, sights seen and experiences experienced affected his first opening Gulliver's pizzeria, and then Pequod's and ultimately Burt's Place? And whatever else he did and accomplished in life.

I'll never know, but it's interesting to think about. And that's what I believe Mary Page Marlowe is ultimately addressing. The assumptions we make based on appearances, at any given point in time, are undoubtedly lacking any real acuity into the lives of others. 

Ever changing as they may be. 

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