Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Mary Page Marlowe
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's recent review of Hazel: A Musical Maid in America

Blair Brown and Alan Wilder
Photo by Michael Brosilow
19th-Century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards," a theory oft-quoted in reviews of Merrily We Roll Along and Betrayal. With Mary Page Marlowe, now in its world premiere production at Steppenwolf, playwright Tracy Letts might be saying, "Life can only be understood by looking at its events in random order." The life of his titular heroine is examined in 11 scenes, from her infancy just after World War II to a short time before her death in our present day, but they are presented in a non-chronological order.

The play begins at what would be the midpoint if they were done chronologically. In this opening scene, a 40-year-old Mary (Rebecca Spence) is telling her 13-year-old son (Jack Edwards) and 16-year-old daughter (Madeline Weinstein) that she and their father are divorcing and that the kids will move with her from Dayton, Ohio, to Lexington, Kentucky. The three are meeting at a coffee shop and most of the conversation seems like the way things would go in such a situation. The daughter is distraught over the thought of changing schools halfway through high school—and particularly the idea of moving to Kentucky where she fears her classmates will be hillbillies—and the boy is simply detached. There's more beneath the surface, though, as Letts cleverly plants seeds that will have significance to Mary's life. Why are the parents divorcing? "We just fell out of love," Mary explains. Why do you have to change jobs? "They didn't need me anymore." We will learn that the real reasons aren't that simple as more events in her life are revealed, and that this is the moment when her life begins to unravel as a result of choices made earlier in life and in ways that will have consequences for the next two decades. It's a perfect place to start the story—at its middle.

To say much more than that would deprive readers of experiencing Letts' carefully conceived and gradual reveals of the facts of Mary's life. His scrambled chronology is brilliant. In the scenes performed earlier in the play, we see the painful effects of Mary's choices before we know their causes, and as a result, we're more likely to empathize than to judge. Later in the play, as we know more about her life, we see the long-term consequences of her actions and fully understand the stakes in ways we otherwise might not.

Mary is played by at various points in her life by six different actors. All are impressive, but it's a particular treat to see Blair Brown in three of the scenes as Mary in her later years, as she comes to peace with the disappointments and tragedies of her life as well as with her mortality. Brown gives the character a strength and grace that is the glue of the play. Another standout is Rebecca Spence, whose scenes include not only the opening but also the penultimate scene that is the piece's climax. Caroline Heffernan is the sensitive 12-year-old Mary and Annie Munch is a thoughtful 19-year-old college sophomore trying to make life choices with the help of her roommate Lorna (Tess Frazer), a novice Tarot card reader. Carrie Coon is strong and sexy as the more reckless Mary of her twenties and thirties, while Laura T. Fisher—playing the 50-year-old Mary at another crisis point in her life—gives an amazing amalgamation of calm and fury all in one scene.

There's a substantial supporting cast of another 12 actors. There are memorable performances from Stephen Cefalu as Mary's troubled WWII vet father and Amanda Drinkall as her mother, Ian Barford as one of Mary's three husbands, Alan Wilder as her third and favorite husband, and Gary Wilmes as Mary's adulterous boss. In roles of other people on the periphery of Mary's life are Kirsten Fitzgerald, Keith Gallagher, Sandra Marquez, and Ariana Venturi. Amazingly, there's no double-casting among this cast of 18, which given the piece's 85-minute running time must be a record ratio of actors to stage minutes for a non-musical play.

Anna D. Shapiro again displays her signature skill at staging realism and communicating high stakes without overplaying. She stages Letts' scenes—which each could be a standalone 10-minute play even as they are part of a larger mosaic—straightforwardly, with just a minimum of "theatricality" in the transitions between scenes. As Todd Rosenthal's minimal set pieces roll on and off and actors between the scenes share the stage for brief moments, there's a sense of cinematic dissolves as Mary moves from one memory to another.

Mary's life is not particularly remarkable. Maybe it's had more pain and tragedy than most, maybe not. Who really ever knows what goes on in another person's psyche? If there's something beyond simply a good story in Mary Page Marlowe—some greater truth or lesson—it may be just to support Kierkegaard's theory, with its harsh corollary that none of us get to live life in reverse. We have to live it forwards and do the best we can.

Mary Page Marlowe will play Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St., through May 29, 2016. For further information or tickets, visit or call 312-335-1650.