A Life, in Bits and Pieces

Mary Page Marlowe

A New Play by Tracy Letts

Some may not immediately recognize the name Tracy Letts. However, you probably know him if you’ve watched Homeland, where he played Senator and then CIA Director Andrew Lockhart, The Big Short with Letts as Lawrence Fields, or any number of other TV shows and films. In addition to films and television, Letts is also an award-winning playwright and a screenwriter. In 2008, he won the Tony Award for Best Play for August: Osage County. In 2013, he won a Tony again, this time for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And three of his plays (Killer Joe, Bug, and August: Osage County) have been filmed, with Letts writing the screen adaptations.

Now he has a new, exciting play on the main stage of the renowned Chicago regional theatre, Steppenwolf. With companions, we saw Mary Page Marlowe in previews one week before its formal opening, and highly recommend it to you if you will be in the Chicago area during its run. (See Steppenwolf for dates and times.) Mary Page Marlowe will probably make its way to Broadway, as other Letts plays have, and perhaps even to film, especially as it offers terrific roles for an ensemble of female actors.

Mary Page Marlowe presents the life of Mary Page at various stages of her life. These moments range from pivotal to the mundane stuff of life, from infancy to moments before her death. The settings are as middle America as you can get, southern Ohio and Kentucky. The timeframe is from the Korean War to the present.

Mary Page is nobody special. She does nothing extraordinary in her life. She works at various jobs. She makes bad marriage choices. She carries on affairs. She has children. In short, she mirrors America today and Americans. Hers is a life in bits and pieces and the extraordinary thing about the play is that it reveals Mary Page in bits and pieces, as a jigsaw puzzle we, the audience, are left to assemble in our minds as her story jumps back and forth in her life. This technique, also, as you will discover, makes for some very poignant moments, as you recall things about her life while watching the current episode. 

Good art illuminates life and helps us think about our place in the world. It can also show us aspects of life we may never experience ourselves in such ways that we add to our understanding of the diversity of life that, if we allow it, can personally enrich our own awareness. As Letts’s new play demonstrates, every life is a great story arc, from birth to death, filled with dramatic highs and lows. A strength of the play is that it offers us an ordinary person, someone whom we can relate to, because Mary Page is very much like us, our friends, and our family. She, along with her experiences, is a mirror into which we can project ourselves and have reflected back meaning in our own lives. And like real life, which seems much too short, you wish it could go on longer than its trim ninety-minute running time.

From a stagecraft standpoint, its numerous scene changes make it feel more cinematic than life played out in a framed box. Todd Rosenthal’s design shifts scenes smoothly by employing platforms that roll on and off the stage pre-filled with props and actors. Everything happens quickly and flawlessly, so each scene change occurs almost like a scene cut on film. It’s really something to behold, especially when you consider that scenic design can be quite static in the usual play. At the end, you may find yourself commenting, as we did, that the play could easily translate to film, since in many ways it runs like a film.

Another notable feature is the many actresses playing Mary Page at various stages of her life, from college girl, to young wife, to mature wife, and everything in-between, six actors and six iterations of Mary Page Marlowe. While this may sound like it might be jarring, it’s anything but. It enhances Mary Page’s story as each actor adds her own nuance to Mary at the different stages of her life. (In the previews, there were even three revolving infant Mary Pages. But they were dropped from the show as they proved a bit distracting for the audience, and, possibly, the actors.)

If we gave star ratings, we’d give this five. As it is, if you live in or are visiting Chicago, we urge you to get tickets before Mary Page Marlowe moves on. It’s an amazing ninety-minutes of live theatre. w/c

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