In today’s Wall Street Journal I report from Chicago on the premiere of Tracy Letts’ new play, Mary Page Marlowe. Here’s an excerpt.
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Tracy Letts is a poet of the ordinary, a playwright who writes about commonplace lives in uncommon ways. Take “Mary Page Marlowe,” his latest play, in which he tells the story of an accountant from Ohio whose life, while occasionally bumpy, seems at bottom to be as conventional as a loaf of store-bought white bread. Yet she claims on her deathbed to have led “a good life,” and whether or not you agree with her, you’ll be enthralled to watch that life unfold, for it is described in a manner so clear and true that you cannot doubt its significance.
Handsomely mounted by Steppenwolf Theatre Company and staged by Anna D. Shapiro with great delicacy, “Mary Page Marlowe,” which runs for a bit less than 90 intermission-free minutes, consists of a series of loosely linked vignettes that follow the title character from childhood to old age—we see her as a baby and at the ages of 12, 19, 27, 36, 40, 44, 50, 59, 63 and 69—and are performed out of chronological order. In addition, Mr. Letts has left yawning gaps between the 11 scenes, meaning that while it isn’t hard to follow what’s going on at any given moment, you must pay close attention to make the various events in Mary Page’s life add up to a meaningful whole….
On paper, it may not sound as though “Mary Page Marlowe” is worth the trouble. Born in 1945, Mary Page marries three times and has two children (Jack Edwards and Madeline Weinstein), one of whom she outlives. We see her gossiping with her college roommates (Tess Frazer and Ariana Venturi), sleeping with her boss (Gary Wilmes), talking to her therapist (Kirsten Fitzgerald), telling her children that she is getting a divorce, watching TV with her third husband (Alan Wilder) and learning from a nurse (Sandra Marquez) that she will soon die. The only surprise comes in the scene in which she informs her second husband (Ian Barford) that she’s going to have to spend at least two years in prison for drunken driving. Otherwise, Mary Page never goes anywhere interesting or does anything unusual.
So why bother with her? Because Mr. Letts does much the same thing in “Mary Page Marlowe” that Thornton Wilder had in mind when he described “Our Town,” his celebrated chronicle of life in a small New England village, as “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Inspired by the death of his mother a year and a half ago, he has sought to plumb the complexities of an “average” life, one in which a person’s identity changes from decade to decade, very often in ways that seem arbitrary beyond belief. “Someone else could have written my diary,” Mary Page tells her therapist. “I’m not the person I am. I’m just acting like a person who is a wife and a mother.” Who, then, is she—and how ought she to live? That so ordinary a woman should be grappling with such profound questions may not be the stuff of high drama, but in Mr. Letts’ hands it proves to be the stuff of a deeply affecting night at the theater….
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Read the whole thing here.
Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon talk about Mary Page Marlowe on PBS NewsHour: