In Lila Thorne’s Peace for Mary Frances, peace doesn’t come fast enough for the title character—and that’s not only peace of the eternal-rest variety but also of the day-to-day kind. Mary Frances (Lois Smith) is steadfastly hanging on despite her advanced (unspecified) affliction. So, for their various reasons, is her family. Such hangers-on aren’t spotted so often in even the most dysfunctional families regularly showing up on stages cross the country.
Thorne’s clinging group members are so specifically combative that as Peace for Mary Frances carries on through its two acts, it becomes increasingly likely that the proceedings are, if not something playwright Thorne has endured personally, they’re something she has closely witnessed.
The immediacy is both the strength and the eventual weakness of the play wherein Mary Frances is attended to, and contended over, by daughters Fanny (Johanna Day) and Alice (J. Smith-Cameron)—mostly bedridden in the room designer Dane Laffrey places up a hidden staircase from a cramped living room-kitchen area.
Fanny lives close by in West Hartford, Connecticut, while Alice has to drive up from New York City, but the former is generally ineffective at meeting Mary Frances’s needs, whereas the latter is helpful to the point of martyrdom. And Alice’s daughters Rosie (Natalie Gold), the mother of an infant often lovingly handed around, and Helen (Heather Burns), an unhappily unmarried television actress, also populate the turbulent premises. So does oldest sibling Eddie (Paul Lazar), who’s totally ineffective throughout his visits.
As the verbal and even physical abuse worsens (Lisa Kopitsky is the fight director), hospice nurse Bonnie (Mia Katigbak) and hospice social worker (Brian Miskell) arrive attempting, not very successfully, to clear the air. They even prepare a contract to which the family members must adhere (e.g., who can be in the room with whom and who can’t). In time, though, matters get so bad that hospice caretaker Clara (Melle Powers) is called in to no measurable avail.
The heaviest combat is carried on between lazy Fanny, whom Mary Frances has apparently favored over the decades, and Alice, who hasn’t been the recipient of her mother’s passed down jewelry and who, in her fight to win approval (a standard family dynamic, of course), never abandons her legacy hopes.
Through Thorne’s first act, her handling of the mounting wreckage is strong. Everything about the increasing strain seems persuasively observed. Certainly, there are previous deathwatch plays (Edward Albee’s All Over and Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate come to mind) but none in which such high-volume skirmishes occur. Mary Frances herself may be longing to breathe her last, but with unexpected vigor she’s still raging against the night and against every bedside fight.
Then comes Thorne’s second act, wherein more of the same unfolds with horrifying acrimony. The playwright finds ever more ways to keep Fanny and Alice at each other’s throats, daughters Rosie and Helen on edge, Eddie hoping to fade into the background and Mary Frances primed to call them all to task. The only uncharged words are saved for the well-behaved, swaddled infant.
At one point Alice wants to borrow the car that Mary Frances has given to Fanny but Fanny will have none of it. That previously unmentioned bone-to-pick is something to behold, but on the other hand, it’s just another of the now repetitious family quarrels.
The need to wax on is what begins to suggest that Thorne is writing about a death in her family or someone else’s she witnessed close at hand and therefore doesn’t want to skimp on. That’s no matter how sated an audience might become. Actually, it’s more accurate to indicate she’s writing not so much about death but about the act of dying. At her self-appointed task, she does run the risk of patrons silently saying to Mary Frances, “Die already.”
The cast members are top-notch, certainly as led by the always-busy Smith. Fully on their reliable form are Day, who makes the unpleasant Fanny extraordinarily unpleasant, and Smith, who makes Alice’s loud sacrifices properly affecting and, after a while, properly irritating. Burns and Gold, as loving sisters, are especially touching in a scene where they compare their very different lives.
Ubiquitous director Lila Neugebauer is the extremely capable referee for all the pumped-up Smith/Day/Smith-Cameron rounds, and her expertise extends to the other five players. Producers and playwrights are evidently lining up for Neugebauer’s services these days. If and when they’re obtained, she never lets them down.
At a time when ways to achieve the peaceful death is very much on minds everywhere, plays that confront the issue(s) seem more and more timely. (Recent headlines are only just fading that told of a 104-year-old Australian scientist who traveled to Switzerland for legal euthanasia.) Observing how one specific unhappy family copes with the attenuated death-and-dying experience is welcome, although it does overstay that welcome by a few measures.
Peace for Mary Frances opened May 23, 2018, at the Pershing Square Signature Center and runs through June 17. Tickets and information: thenewgroup.org