At one point in “Mary Page Marlowe,” Tracy Letts’ highly anticipated new play at Steppenwolf Theatre, a nurse asks the title character, who is resting in a hospital bed, about the kind of work she did. Mary Page tells her she was an accountant, and goes on to say she enjoyed the work, especially sorting through the boxes of receipts her clients would give her, from which she would assemble their tax returns. It was, she explains, like piecing together a puzzle.
In many ways that process is similar to the way Letts has structured his 85-minute play. Each of its many short but emblematic scenes captures a pivotal moment in Mary Page’s life, from infancy through the age of 69, with six actresses portraying her at 10 different stages as she variously engages with her mother, her high school girlfriends, her husbands (and other men), her two children, and a psychiatrist.
These transformations do not reveal themselves in chronological order, so it is up to the audience to fit the pieces together and map the essential character and psychological shifts of the woman in question. The result is an intriguing if not entirely satisfying theatrical experiment — the portrait of a woman whose path in life is defined by both her innate personality and the scars left from her childhood. Life’s many blows pile up to create often unexpected (and at times belief-stretching) transformations. Each scene is superbly written, but the pieces are more satisfying than the whole.
‘MARY PAGE MARLOWE’
When: Through May 29
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 85 minutes
with no intermission
Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Mary Page is the daughter of Ed Marlowe (Stephen Cefalu Jr.), a handsome young soldier who has experienced far too much during World War II, and his wife, Roberta (Amanda Drinkall). Early on, Ed takes off for California, leaving his bitter wife and infant daughter behind. Roberta is not a loving mother, as suggested by the scene in which the 12-year-old Mary Page (Caroline Heffernan) receives a withering judgment from her after singing a song she plans to use for an audition at school.
At age 19, Mary Page (as played by Annie Munch) is a lushly pretty redhead seen lounging with two friends (Tess Frazer and Ariana Venturi), one of whom does her tarot card reading that indicates she is somewhat willful and full of dreams, willing to take responsibility for her actions, but also rather fatalistic about her life. Though told she is too independent for marriage, she does marry, and has two children: Wendy (fine work by Madeline Weinstein) and the younger Louis (Jack Edwards), whose life will become a mess. Their 40-year-old mother (Rebecca Spence, very much her mother’s daughter now) informs them she is getting a divorce and moving to Lexington, Kentucky, for a job, so they will be shuttling between both parents for a while.
We also learn that Mary Page (as played at ages 27 and 36 by a decidedly sexy and hard-edged Carrie Coon, Letts’ real-life wife) has engaged in a fair amount of extramarital sex, including an affair with her boss (Gary Wilmes). But as she confesses to her psychiatrist (Kirsten Fitzgerald, in top form), she feels she has never really made any decisions in her life, but just sort of let everything happen to her.
By the time Mary Page is 50 (played to harrowing effect by Laura T. Fisher), she is pretty much unrecognizable — a serious, accident-scarred alcoholic who, despite the pleas of her second husband, Ray (Ian Barford), is determined to serve her prison sentence for DUI charges because she knows she is guilty. It is only with her third husband, the caring but rather ordinary Andy (Alan Wilder), that Mary Page (played from ages 59 to 69 by Blair Brown) finally finds some happiness and peace, although this later-life incarnation (which includes brief but winning turns by Sandra Marquez as a nurse and Keith D. Gallagher as a dry cleaner’s clerk) doesn’t quite track from all that comes before it.
With help from Todd Rosenthal’s set, Marcus Doshi’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s sound, director Anna D. Shapiro (Letts’ collaborator on “August: Osage County”) makes the play’s physical transitions feel smooth. But, for whatever reason (poor acoustics, a lack of projection, bad miking), too much of the dialogue is badly muffled and at times barely audible. Inexcusable.
The play ends with a rather perfunctory attempt to bring all the puzzle pieces of Mary Page’s life into place, but it plays like an overly hasty fade-out. On second thought, this might be just the way Mary Page would envision it.