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Ode to the Sleepless: Rachel McAdams in 'Mary Jane'

Updated: May 3

Peggy Hepburn's 3-Word Review: Resonant! Painful! Powerful!

Rachel McAdams in Mary Jane

The big draw for Mary Jane on Broadway, which just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York City, is Rachel McAdams — where has she been? I love when a star comes out of seemingly nowhere to make their stage debut, and Ms. McAdams has more than proven herself up to the task, in this reviewer’s opinion. She’s always been an excellent actress, but the staging of Mary Jane places you so close to the character & her struggles that you forget entirely that it’s Rachel McAdams at all, which is, of course, the sign of a brilliant performance.

The lack of mics for the actors, plus the set design, which is up for inspection as you enter the theatre — a very hum-drum New York apartment, replete with dust in the corners & the shadow of an old picture on the wall, boob lights, a cluttered kitchen sink, etc. — makes it feel as if you are quite literally in the apartment with the characters, creating a claustrophobia that is palpable throughout. And who is Mary Jane? She’s an everywoman, a single mother trying to raise a child that is barely clinging to life, born after 25 weeks of pregnancy with cerebral palsy, & who remains offstage, never truly visible, in a room with medical monitors & in need of constant supervision — the play’s action is continuously interrupted by the beeping of the machines, indicating a need for the child to be checked on. We follow this lonely pollyanna as she interacts with her superintendent in the opening scene, then a busy caretaker who helps with her baby, then another mother who has just given birth to a little one with the same condition, & so on, building a larger theme of a woman without any real sense of direction in her life beyond caring for this child. Modern medicine has made incredible things possible, but still it does not seem to have made it any easier for a girl like Mary Jane to survive in this world, whose bracing positivity (so characteristic of American culture, especially white women) is no match for the existential disaster she finds herself facing: a child that hovers between being & non-being, beginning & ending, is a quandary that anyone would struggle to smile through.

As you can imagine, the second half of the show takes place in the hospital, & the set we’ve just seen miraculously lifts & hovers overhead, revealing a sterile white interior. It is a little terrifying, this set where we just saw so much action take place hovering overhead, refrigerator, pull-out couch & all, & it slowly becomes a metaphor for the weight that Mary Jane carries, however mundane, a kind of anvil that feels as if it’s about to drop & squash her at any moment. I was impressed with the use of light as well — there was a particularly sublime moment when Mary Jane, in the middle of the night, carries an illuminated stuffed animal across the stage, the whimsically-colored stars & moons lighting up the entire darkened theatre. Almost every scene is either late at night or early in the morning, & Mary Jane seems never to catch a wink, concerned as she is about her baby, who also struggles to find sleep, as babies are wont. It’s enough to wear anyone down, & we watch as she slowly crumbles in the face of her & the medical establishment’s herculaen efforts to keep the child alive.

Through this maddening struggle, Mary Jane finds herself in search of a meaning to it all in a godless modern landscape that can only offer ‘services’ by way of direction. An encounter with an orthodox Jewish mother whose child shares the room with Mary Jane’s prods into the typical American’s lack of community — “This,” the Jewish woman says, gesturing to Mary Jane’s solitude, “would never happen with us.” This emerges as the thesis of the play — the emptiness at the heart of the American experience, the failure of the cult of individualism. Where is Mary Jane’s family? Where is her community? She has none, & is expected only to rely on herself, an impossible task. A conversation with a Buddhist nun who works for the hospital centers around the visions of the saints being explained away by modern science as simply neurological disorders — ah, science is our religion now, isn’t it? It offers explanations but no higher power to appeal to, and Mary Jane is certainly in need of divine intervention. A delightfully bewildering finale cues to her discovery of the divine through earthly pain, quite the saintly quagmire. Where does God exist if not inside the trials we’re put through?

Big thoughts for Broadway, but we’re in the mood for them — this plus the interest in modern womanhood are making for a politically charged & heady season. Count me in.

—Peggy Hepburn

Photos by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Mary Jane production, 2024. Lead illustration by @madamestarlite.


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