All in the Family

In Crazy Mary, playwright A.R. Gurney steps outside of his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., the setting for many of his plays. Though Lydia (Sigourney Weaver), the protagonist, hails from that city, the play finds both her and her son Skip (Michael Esper) in a Boston sanitarium. The two are there to visit Mary, Lydia's mentally unstable cousin, who has been hidden from society since a disastrous affair with a stable hand came to a head in 1973. Since her divorce from Skip's father, Lydia has desperately tried to cling to her upper-class lifestyle, and she finds an opportunity when her father's death puts her in control of Mary's inheritance. She sees Mary (Kristine Nielsen)—the product of an affair between a Buffalo landowner and a laundress—as a source for her continued affluence. Skip, meanwhile, is striving to break free of the confines of high society. Although he attends Harvard, he is working his way through school and wishes to live as a landscaper, in sharp contrast to his mother's wish that he pursue a business degree.

Ultimately, Crazy Mary, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, is about the lengths people go to for control—of other people's lives as well as their own. When Lydia and Skip meet Mary (Skip has never seen her, and Lydia hasn't visited since she was sent away), she is in a catatonic state. But Skip triggers a reaction in her, and she experiences a kind of awakening. She becomes animated and no longer needs assistance walking and in making decisions. She draws stability and a newfound zest for living from her relationship with Skip, which starts as an emotional one but eventually becomes physical.

Although I feel Gurney overreaches with this incestuous plot point, the relationship between Mary and Skip remains the central force driving the play. Through it, both characters try to release themselves from Lydia's domineering and assert their autonomy. The more time and attention Skip devotes to Mary, the more he brings her to life, even if it is at his peril. Eventually, he cuts classes and then abandons his studies altogether, much to Lydia's dismay.

Esper is a major discovery in Crazy Mary, providing all kinds of depth and nuance to a character much wiser, and more conflicted, than his years suggest. His relationship with Mary is bittersweet; as fulfilling as it is for him, it cannot last. Yet for the first time, he feels he has contributed to someone else's life.

Nielsen (who, like Weaver, is a Gurney regular) is also outstanding—and heartbreaking. Her work here is slightly less madcap than it has been in the playwright's other works, and while Mary's behavior is rather immature, she maintains a certain level of pathos throughout her disappointments. Mary truly falls in love with Skip, but it is Lydia who can determine her happiness. She is the one who can grant Mary's freedom and move her to Buffalo. In the climactic, riveting scene in which Mary beseeches Lydia to do so, all the characters understand the consequences—that to deny Mary's return to Buffalo will crush her spirit and ultimately send her back into catatonia.

The production is a testament to Jim Simpson's solid direction, as well as the performance by Weaver, his wife. Weaver's many stage and screen portrayals have perfected an image of the wealthy WASP wife, but in this piece she shows the cracks in that veneer. Lydia is as vulnerable and desperate a character as her cousin, but she refuses to give up her fight, even long after she has already lost it. Weaver sets the tone for every scene; when she sits, characters move toward her, and when she alters her speaking voice, other characters match her.

The other two performers—Mitchell Greenberg as Mary's opportunistic doctor and Myra Lucretia Taylor as Pearl, Mary's nurse—are dependable in their smaller roles. Taylor, in particular, alternates seamlessly between Pearl's sterner and more broadly comic moments.

The characters in Crazy Mary may face difficult choices, but performances like these make seeing the show no choice at all.

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