BWW Review: Steppenwolf's MARY PAGE MARLOWE Struggles to Find Its Identity
"Mary Page Marlowe," Tracy Letts' new play which opened at Steppenwolf Theatre this past weekend under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, feels like it's attempting to take its audience on a journey similar to its upstairs neighbor, Annie Baker's "The Flick." Yet, where "The Flick" succeeds in profoundly moving its audience through its simplistic showcase of bits of life, Letts' latest outing struggles to find the truth in the small moments that can make this type of theatrical endeavor connect so deeply with audiences.
"Mary Page Marlowe" takes its audience, scene to scene, to different moments, from infancy to near death, from the title character's life. Not all of these moments are simple day-to-day scenes, but Letts' writing, particularly in comparison with his past works, seems to lean on the side of naturalistic without much theatricality infused. And yet, this kind of naturalism that can often open up a deep connection between audience and the realism happening onstage, comes off as less simplistic and more simple. For Letts, such a skilled, entertaining playwright, it's all the more disappointing for this newest play to feel more like an early work of a new playwright rather than stemming from the same brilliant mind that has brought us so many other thoughtful, interesting plays.
In this 90-minute play, with six actresses playing Mary Page in the different stages of her life, Letts never seems to be able to open his lead character up quite enough. Although what we do get to see is not frivolous nor inconsistent, it never seems to add up to a full, complex character. We see complicated things happen in her life, we see her contradictions and struggles, but we are never afforded enough moments to give us ways toward fully understanding her. And without this, sitting in the audience of "Mary Page Marlowe" proves to be a passive (though not unpleasant) viewing experience, and nothing more.
The production itself doesn't help what may be the downfalls of the written play. While no one would expect all six actresses playing Mary Page to be clones of each other, despite each woman finding the truth within their individual scenes, each felt like entirely separate characters. Perhaps this was the goal of Letts and Shapiro: to show how one person can seem to be very different people at various moments of life. But, if this was what was trying to be achieved, it never fully came across. This lack of connection between the different Mary Pages then makes it difficult to feel as if we are following one person's journey and it became nearly impossible to become invested in her. And, without any sort of investment in the title character, one walks out of the theatre thinking...what was the point? Or, perhaps: Why this character's story?
It's not that Mary Page's life needed to be more significant. Rather Letts, although it is clear this is what he was striving for, couldn't find the significance and human connection within the normalcy of life.
Trying to find the balance between highlighting this significance, without there being much, and letting the story of this woman speak for itself also makes for uneven direction. The transitions between scenes, in particular, prove to be confusing in terms of tone. Between some scenes the audience is met with heightened theatricality, which could have worked had it been consistent. However, not all transitions employ this same tactic. The inconsistent use of theatricality also makes these moments seem to shout "This is meaningful!" instead of just being meaningful. And, in a play that is otherwise not stylized or theatrical in this way, it stands out like a sore thumb.
Perhaps the biggest example of this comes in the very last line of the play where both Letts and Shapiro seem to misstep a great deal. The final moment feels like an extremely amateur button to the play. Both the writing and direction feel like a spoon-fed "moment" that it's clear the audience is supposed to resonate with. Yet, it's such an odd moment, and such a blatant scream for importance, that it left Saturday afternoon's audience confused, sitting silently in the dark for a few seconds, not realizing the play was over (an unfortunate last impression).
Perhaps I had too high of expectations of another excellent Letts/Steppenwolf collaboration, but "Mary Page Marlowe," though not offensively bad (except, maybe, the final moment) left me feeling indifferent, which I almost find a worse offense. Both Letts and Steppenwolf have the ability to strive for more and I'd rather see a failed true attempt than something that left me shrugging my shoulders while walking out the door.
"Mary Page Marlowe" is currently running through May 29, 2016 in Steppenwolf's downstairs theatre. Tickets are $20 - $89 and can be purchased at steppenwolf.org or by calling the box office at (312) 335-1650.Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow