Peace for Mary Frances marks a promising debut for dramatist Lily Thorne. The play, produced by the New Group, follows the last weeks of the 90-year-old title character and her typically (well, maybe not so typically) dysfunctional family. The daughter of refugees from the Armenian genocide, Mary Frances is plagued by physical maladies. She has decided to resolve some old family issues and then shuffle off this you-know-what at home.
Played to perfection by Lois Smith, Mary Frances is willful, loving, selfish, tender, peevish, witty, brutal and all else that make mysteries of our mothers. She has drawn back into her life a rather ineffectual son (a delightfully squeamish Paul Lazar). Also lured into Mary Frances’s plans are two daughters: Alice (J. Smith-Cameron), a down-and-out ex-hippie astrologist and Fanny (Johanna Day), a recovering heroin addict. The tension, jealousy and competition between the sisters for their mother’s affection and resources and how their battle will engage with the impending death forms the dramatic action. Both actresses play their characters with ferocity, making the struggles of their unfulfilled lives palpable and pitiful.
Also in the mix are Alice’s two daughters: Rosie, a TV actress played with appropriate restraint by Natalie Gold, and Helen, Alice and Mary Frances’s fiercest protector (a dynamic Heather Burns). One of Mary Frances’s most poignant moments comes as she’s cooing over Rosie’s infant: “Don’t trick me into staying….”
As Mary Frances’s condition worsens, arrangements are made for hospice care; a coordinator (Mia Katigbak) visits, along with a psychologist (Brian Miskell), and they prepare the family for what’s to come.
Dane Laffrey’s clever, organic set depicts a lived-in, middle-class, Connecticut home. An enclosed staircase into which characters enter and pop out of again, as if in a comedy routine, provides some (perhaps inadvertent) amusement. Jessica Pabst’s unobtrusive costumes and Tyler Micoleau’s warm lighting evoke the comfortable passage of time. A minimal sound design by Daniel Kluger, reminiscent of a heartbeat, completes the mood.
Director Lila Neugebauer keeps the pace ebbing and flowing as needed, and the cast’s solid performances are a testament to her work with the actors in developing their characters.
Thorne is a playwright with a prodigious ability to write characters who breathe their private angst, ones whom the audience can care about and want to know. But there are still problems. She cuts off the characters just when they are most engaging. The two sisters, the forces who are meticulously established in the first half of the play and drive the action—the forces that we long to see resolved—are separated late in the drama. One is left wishing that the play’s ending had started the second half so the love/hate relationship that torments the sisters could be resolved.
There is a lot of exposition by the hospice employees about protocol and medications that slows the action and gives the impression of an infomercial about dying at home. Someone in the production should have convinced the playwright to cut. Toward the end, the presence of a home-care worker (Melle Powers) threatens any chance of a resolution between the sisters.
There are plenty of clues that this play is autobiographical: specific Armenian references and endearments, the taking of sides. Thorne’s skill at wit is notable: “I heard you. It’s not hearsay, I heard you.” Thorne writes striving women, women who pulse with life, even when dying. As promising as this play is, one looks forward to her next.
The New Group production of Peace for Mary Frances plays through June 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and at 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit TheNewGroup.org.