[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, May 24, 2018.]
In The New Group’s production of Lily Thorne’s painful and beautiful play Peace for Mary Frances, an extended family contends with an aging parent and numerous family legacies. One by one, in groups of two and three and four and sometimes more, family members and health care workers cope with both past and present and hope for the future. Adult siblings tussle over past harms and perceived slights that swirl around the illness and death of the matriarch who binds them. We are all here for a time, these characters teach us — living together, loving occasionally, passing the torch on the way out. One character is dying of natural causes; one lurks on the edge of addiction relapse; one nears financial insolvency; in waves it all emerges. Director Lila Neugebauer keeps the plot turns moving with delicacy and nuance. And it’s mesmerizing.
What mesmerizes, in part, is how the two male and seven female actors forge into an ensemble. The titular nonagenarian matriarch (masterful Lois Smith) is on oxygen and clearly in physical distress until hospice arrives with morphine; the pain may be within her body, but it may also be from the reality of the family she built. Visitors and attendants stream through, among them her children: Fanny (terrifying Johanna Day), the youngest, an addict in recovery; middle Alice (sweet, pained J. Smith-Cameron); and eldest Eddie (heartbreaking Paul Lazar), a lawyer talking finances. And her adult granddaughters: actress Helen (sprightly, damaged Heather Burns), and Rosie (rooted, resilient Natalie Gold), whose infant is with her throughout the play. In addition, three health care and hospice staff — Michael (Brian Miskell), Clara (Melle Powers) and Bonnie (Mia Katigbak) — speak of death honestly while helping Mary Frances and her brood to live life in the moment. The house, we notice, is not only full of present issues but past ghosts — especially patriarch Poppy, dead 18 years, to whom Mary Frances speaks daily.
I was not surprised to read that Thorne began her career as a documentary filmmaker. In her professional playwriting debut, the work seems at peace with allowing characters to tell their stories step by step, word by word, using the pace of her old boss, documentarian Ric Burns, whose subjects have ranged from Eugene O’Neill and Ansel Adams to NYC and Nantucket. I would conjecture that Thorne has learned lessons, too, from her collaboration with activist-historian Howard Zinn, whose A People’s History of the United States instructs us on how to take our history and our future into our own hands:
The democratic principle, enunciated in the words of the Declaration of Independence, declared that government was secondary, that the people who established it were primary. Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people, and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world.
In its own way, this is the sensibility that resonates through Peace for Mary Frances.