Part of what makes those minutes feel so long is that the different periods are arbitrarily jumbled up, seemingly willy-nilly, instead of occurring chronologically. Not only we but the playwright and director Lila Neugebauer have to rely a lot on scene designer Laura Jellinek and costumer Kaye Voyce to help us know where we are when. Letts himself tries to help the situation with period references, such as when Mary Page is in college, referring to the film Charade, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. But you would have to know the film was originally released in 1963 to make the connection.
Consider: according to the program, Blair Brown plays Marlowe when she’s 59, 63, and 69; Emma Geer plays her when she’s 19; Mia Sinclair Jenness when she’s 12; Tatiana Maslany when she’s 27 and 36; Susan Pourfar when she’s 40 and 44; and most effectively, Kellie Overbey when she’s 50.
In the first of eleven scenes, we meet Mary Page as she’s telling her son Louis and her daughter Wendy that she’s gotten a job in Lexington, Kentucky, and they’re going to have to leave their home in Dayton, Ohio. The sullen Wendy (Kayli Carter) is upset about having to leave her friends and high-school classmates behind, while the younger Louis (Ryan Foust) seems more accepting of the prospect. When Wendy asks if they have school “choir” in Kentucky, Mary Page responds, “Yes, they have choir in Kentucky. People don’t stop singing just because they cross the state line.”
Set in “a dorm room” in Dayton in 1965, with a period phonograph on a table and two twin beds, the 19-year-old Mary Marlowe (Marlowe is her maiden name) is having Tarot cards read, with her “girlfriends,” Lorna (Tess Frazer) and Connie (Audrey Corsa). It’s Lett’s ploy for giving us insights into the younger Mary Page, as Lorna tells her that picking the “Queen of Cups” is perfect for Mary Page, because it’s “all about hope, and dreams, and possibilities.” Mary Page reveals that she was proposed to, the night before, by “the most handsome boy on campus,” but she “turned him down, flat.”
Since it’s more about the way it’s told than what is divulged, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal that, by the end, Mary Page Marlowe will have been married three times, and essentially ruined her life through alcohol, culminating with jail time after a DWI arrest.
In scene 3, Mary Marlowe is a crib-bound, crying baby, and the problems with alcohol are hinted at as we learn that her father Ed (Nick Dillenburg) is a serious alcoholic, which upsets her mother Roberta (Grace Gummer). There’s a subsequent, telling scene, when Mary Page tells her therapist she’s not the person she is: “Then who are you?” inquires her “shrink” (Marcia Debonis). “I don’t know,” replies Mary Page.
In the end, it’s hard to say if we really know who Mary Page is, as well. Though she may seem like something of a cipher, it may be that Letts’ point is she really doesn’t know either, since she seems to behave so differently at different times in her life–and not only because she’s portrayed by so many different actresses.
And if Kellie Overbey stands out as the 50-year-old Mary Page, it may be because she has the most dramatic scenes, allowing her the opportunity to strut her stuff. With her arm in a cast and bruises on her face, she’s overly complacent, in Scene 7, as she’s telling her husband Ray (David Aaron Baker) about how she’s about to go into the penitentiary. But as their arguing about her alcoholism escalates–“You have torn our lives apart with this goddamned drinking” accuses Ray–Overbey effectively shrieks and breaks down.
She breaks down again–this time on her hands and knees, crying–in Scene 10, when she’s contending with her missing, 16-year-old son, referring to the “track marks” on his arms. “He’s probably dealing,” says Mary Page, after she “caught him with coke, pills… a sheet of acid.” Addiction is, after all, increasingly viewed as an inherited condition, as it seems to be reinforced by Letts’ designs as both Mary Page’s father and her son are, like herself, addicted to one thing or another.
As directed with exactitude by Neugebauer, the rest of the large cast is fine with their less intense scenes. And if Tyler Micoleau’s compelling lighting designs cast giant shadows on most of the players at one point or another, it also makes them all seem larger than life, when the play that contains them seems to be saying that no one ever is.
Mary Page Marlowe (extended through August 19, 2018)
Tony Kiser Theatre, The Second Stage, 305 West 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission