Last year, Summit Performance‘s hit production of “Silent Sky” promised a company, whose tag line is “By Women. About Women. For Everyone.,” that would really make a difference in the Indy theatre scene. With its current production of “Mary Jane,” the group once again delivers the goods. I saw the play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Amy Herzog on Saturday at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre.
Perceptively directed by Summit artistic director and co-founder Lauren Briggeman, a superb actor herself, the affecting drama stars Bridget Haight (Mary Jane) supported by Jan Lucas (Ruthie/Tenkei) Nathalie Cruz (Sherry/Dr. Toros), Maura Lisabeth Malloy (Brianne/Chaya) and Kelsey Johnson (Amelia/Kat). They are an accomplished, powerhouse ensemble of actors who kept me totally absorbed throughout the play’s 95-minute length without intermission.
Anybody who has ever been a caregiver or close to one will especially identify with and appreciate the harrowing journey of single mother Mary Jane, who manages to remain cheerful and optimistic as she cares for Alex, her 2 ½-year-old son, who was born a preemie and has cerebral palsy. Navigating the mundane yet critical tasks and chores that come with caring for someone who is chronically ill, while simultaneously dealing with the bureaucracy of the health and insurance systems, she does it all with uncommon grace, humor, patience and compassion. Helping to shore her up is a community of nurturing women in lieu of her cowardly husband, who leaves her shortly after their son’s birth because he simply can’t cope with his son’s incapacitating condition.
Like many accustomed to experiencing high drama in TV and films with medical-related story lines or scenes, I expected the calm and almost mellow Mary Jane would eventually lose her cool and fall apart at some point. But that is what made Herzog’s script so compelling because it more realistically portrayed the real-life monotony, yet sometimes unfathomable pain, frustration and powerlessness, of watching a loved one suffer. Making the play especially inspirational is the quiet stoicism that Mary Jane conveys. Rather than descending into self-pity or victimhood, she chooses to remain hopeful. Rather than succumbing to self-involvement, she still manages to care about others. However, just when you think that Mary Jane is practically a saint, she lashes out at someone who just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Haight gave a seamless performance as Mary Jane, the resilient mother whose powerfully intense love for her child is such that even though Alex is unseen in the play, you believe he is actually in the other room of their home or the hospital where he is treated, because her acting makes his physical presence real.
And speaking of real, the other four women in the cast are all quite astounding, with each playing playing two distinctly different characters effectively and convincingly. Their talent is substantial and their performances are remarkable feats, making their respective transformations one highlight after another.
Managing a performing arts organization myself, I know it takes time to build a brand and develop an audience, so I can relate to Summit Performance as it works to establish itself and its product. Sadly, the audience at the show I attended was less than third full. This is an important work by an important playwright that deserves to seen, presented by an important organization that deserves support. “Mary Jane” runs through August 18.
For tickets and information call the Phoenix box office at (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixthreatre.org.