Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

DramaWatch: Beyond grit in ‘Mary Jane’

Endurance, warmth and strength in Amy Herzog's play; clawing the walls at Shaking the Tree; the casting controversy; is "who wrote Shakespeare" the wrong question?

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Rebecca Lingafelter (left) and Miriam Schwartz in “Mary Jane.” Photo: Owen Carey

A prominent place in the pop psychology of recent years has been given to a loosely defined set of personal characteristics under the shorthand heading of “grit.” To excel in a competitive world, or just to make it through an especially difficult, cruel, and/or randomly unjust one, grit, we’re told, is what we need.

I doubt that the playwright Amy Herzog doubts the value of grit. In fact, the titular character in Herzog’s play Mary Jane – opening at CoHo Theater this weekend in a production by Third Rail Repertory Theatre – has a lot, and can use every bit she can make or muster. Mary Jane is a working single mother with a severely ill young child and not enough hours in the day. Whether she wants it or not, grit has been baked into her.

Yet Herzog – who has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and is currently in the running for a Tony Award with her adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – gives her protagonist a couple of things that appear more valuable to her (and more central to the play) than grit: buoyancy and support.

“She has innately a huge reservoir of experience as well as a buoyant nature,” says director JoAnn Johnson. Far from pitiable, Mary Jane keeps not a stiff upper lip so much as a ready, if weary, smile. She’s quick to downplay her own difficulties and expresses a sincere empathy with even the smallest travails of others.

Throughout Herzog’s two-act yet intermissionless play, we’re exposed to more and more of the hardships of Mary Jane’s life, whether through poignant but offhand bits of backstory or the developing pressures and crises of continuing to care for a son whose challenges only start with cerebral palsy. “It’s almost a Job story,” says Third Rail stalwart Rebecca Lingafelter, evoking a Biblical comparison for the character’s plight. “Things just get worse and worse.”

Janelle Rae (left) and Rebecca Lingafelter. Photo: Owen Carey

And yet, despite the pain that hovers around the play like the auroras that prefigure Mary Jane’s migraines, much of what drew Lingafelter to the play was the sense of communal warmth and strength that courses through it.

“I feel like I’m handed from caregiver to caregiver throughout the play,” Lingafelter says about her experience in the title role. “She really writes a community of care.”

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The play is structured as a series of scenes involving Mary Jane and others in her circumscribed life – her building super, a nurse, other mothers of ill children … Her son is never shown, but the pinging and wheezing of his medical equipment provides a fitting sense of his presence.

“There’s a lot of nuance in the relationships, the navigating of status and expectations among these women,” Lingafelter says. The actors around Lingafelter play one set of characters in Act I, which is set in Mary Jane’s apartment, and another set after the location changes to a pediatric intensive care unit. “They enrich each other, I think. You can’t disguise that the actors have been in another scene, but the different characters they play relate to one another in some very meaningful ways. They carry an interesting resonance, each pair of them.

“The writing is so amazing,” Lingafelter continues. “Hovering over the source of the play is a sort of metaphysical experience. As you dig down into it, there’s always more and more.”

Johnson adds: “There’s so much humor mixed with the pain, and that element of mystery that’s a part of human experience. I love that [Herzog] doesn’t try to wrap things up in a neat bow.”

It’s very much a contemporary story (with unspoken overtones about the travesty of the American health care system, but Johnson reaches for a quote from Shakespeare to illuminate its affective power: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn.”

“Without both beauty and pain,” she says, “we wouldn’t have either.”

Opening

Max Wu’s “In a Different Reality She’s Clawing Up the Walls.” Photo: Natalis Savanh

With references to virtual reality, digital surveillance and technological isolation, Shaking the Tree’s description of its world-premiere production In a Different Reality She’s Clawing at the Walls, by Chinese-American playwright Max Yu, sounds like topical social investigation. But an Instagram post by Rebby Yuer Foster, the intriguing young actor who’s made a mark with the company in the past few years and here makes a full-length directing debut, suggests more personal concerns at play: “Proud to be working with a majority Asian creative / production team, & proud of myself for continuing to explore grief & my own relation to the imposed Asian palatability (etc) through theatre.”

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Shaking the Tree’s stellar track record and the presence of Heath Hyun Houghton in the cast both bode well for this one. 

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The cut-ups at Siren Theater bring back Road House: The Play, their enduringly popular stage adaptation of an entertainingly awful 1989 flick that starred Siren Thethat model thespian Patrick Swayze as a nightclub bouncer/anti-corruption crusader. 

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[title of show], Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s Tony-nominated meta-theatrical nugget, aptly described as “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical,” comes to the Twilight Theatre stage in North Portland, directed by Alicia Turvin.

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Before animating his career with the TV hit South Park, Trey Parker made a film musical based loosely on a true story of an incident from the 1870s. Eventually that story became the stage show lovingly titled Cannibal! the Musical. Little Theatre on the Bend, at North Bay’s Liberty Theatre, serves up a taste. 

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Weekenders

According to the Eventbrite ticketing page for the Magic 10-Minute Play Festival, Friday’s event is the 31st in a series produced by Monkey With a Hat On. And if memory serves, this is the first I’ve heard of it. Some DramaWatch I’ve turned out to be! In any case, shows of this sort can be fun, serving up several slices of concise storytelling.

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The Thin Place, Lucas Hnath’s mysterious play about credulity and the supernatural, which had a fine production in Portland not long ago by Jen Rowe’s The Theatre Company, gets a couple of staged readings, directed by Jack Thomas, from the Majestic Lab Theatre in Corvallis.

Closing

John San Nicolas in “The Play You Want” at Milagro. Liana Rose Photography

Bernardo Cubria’s pointed, comedic social satire The Play You Want, directed by Lawrence Siulagi and starring the hardworking John San Nicolas, ends its run at Milagro. I’m sorry not to have fit it into my schedule.

Also on the, er, chopping block is the juicy Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd at the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis.

Second-hand news

One of my go-to publications for theater commentary is (not surprisingly, I should think) The New York Times, which for decades has employed top-flight critics and reporters on the subject. Sometimes, though, we get something relevant outside of the arts section, such as a recent installment of the long-running column The Ethicist, written these days by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, responding to a reader question about objections to mixed-race casting for a community-theater production of Fiddler on the Roof as “cultural appropriation.” Appiah offered what I think is a cogent, concise explanation of the “clash between two ethical ideals” being advocated lately in terms of socially just and artistically fruitful approaches to casting:

“On the one hand, there’s a concern to create opportunities for nonwhite performers. Why shouldn’t Black people get to play Hamlet as well as Othello? On the other hand, people have asked for more demographic specificity in representation, often invoking authenticity. This approach — which rightly deplores, say, the old Hollywood tradition of whitewashing Asian roles — encompasses ‘color-conscious’ casting and more, so that an Asian role belongs to an Asian actor, a lesbian role to a lesbian actor, a trans role to a trans actor. By the ‘mixing’ logic of nontraditional casting, the performer’s identity doesn’t matter. By this ‘matching’ logic of authenticity, a performer’s identity matters a lot.

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“… The truth is that this musical is a piece of American culture, not of shtetl culture; any appropriation was in the making of it in the first place. … The ethical error is to suppose only one model is right. If the audience can get over the fact that the people on your musical stage are constantly dancing and bursting into song — as, sadly, people seldom do in real life — it can get over the fact that they might not actually look like villagers from the Pale of Settlement.”

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While I hardly expect that it will be the last word on the controversy, I enjoyed a brisk non-academic piece in Slate about the ever-recurring Shakespearean authorship debate. Focusing mostly on Elizabeth Winkler’s Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, Isaac Butler lambastes what he calls “Shakespreare truthers” and likens the movement’s methods to those of “climate change denial, or anti-vax beliefs, or questioning Obama’s citizenship,” before ultimately arguing that authorship is simply the wrong subject:

“Sure, the most famous authorities love churning out their biographies, but most of the field remains focused on the far richer subject of Shakespeare’s work and its relationship to the world in which he lived. … The plays remain complex, confounding, impossible achievements … Their author has, whether by design or by accident, been reduced to a shadow lurking behind the work. Unless some new evidence arises, let us leave him there, offstage in the dark, and focus on what really matters.”

The flattened stage

Well, while we’re on the subject:


The best line I read this week

“Step back from Air, however, and you begin to grasp how profoundly weird it is; weirder, I suspect, than Affleck knows. Observe Damon, Bateman, and Maher as they gaze upon the finished footwear, bathed in its mystical glow. They’re like shepherds in a Rembrandt Nativity, lit by the natural radiance of the Christ child. And they’re looking at a shoe.”

– Anthony Lane, in The New Yorker, reviewing Ben Affleck’s flick about the creation of the Air Jordan and the rise of Nike.

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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