Summit: Feel the love of ‘Mary Jane’

By John Lyle Belden

“Mary Jane,” as the name of both central character and the play presented by Summit Performance Indianapolis, refers not to a quasi-legal substance but to an American everywoman – dealing with one of the worst nightmares a mother could face.

In the drama by acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog (staged Off-Broadway in 2017), Mary Jane – played with bold optimism by Bridget Haight – is the primary caretaker for Alex, a nearly three-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and other conditions likely caused by a brain-bleed during premature birth.

Presented on the intimate confines of the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the play is presented without intermission (as intended) but its scenes present the narrative in two acts: In the first, we are in Mary Jane’s apartment, which includes various medical equipment (much of it unseen behind Alex’s door) and a visiting nurse (Nathalie Cruz). In the second, we are in a hospital which becomes for Mary Jane a sort of home – her son still being cared for just off-stage.

The “third act” is the audience’s ride home, reflecting on what they have seen, heard and felt. Yes, it’s that kind of play. Expect no easy answers, or an ending that brings triumph or catharsis. This is a reflection of real struggles, how we find the strength to confront them, and the search for understanding among others in a similar situation, as well as through faith.

Cruz plays a doctor in the latter half; others in the cast take on dual roles as well. Mara Lisabeth Malloy twice plays a mother with a special-needs child – first a new mom receiving an avalanche of advice from Mary Jane on how to cope; later a Jewish mother of seven who, having faith and family for support, takes the mentor role. Kelsey Johnson is a young woman wanting to help but out of her depth, first as a visitor, charmed by the little boy then overwhelmed by the reality of the situation; later as a musical therapist shaken into not becoming yet another part of Mary Jane’s problems. Jan Lucas bookends the story, at first as a helpful apartment Super, and later as a serenely savvy Buddhist nun.

The play is directed by Summit founding artistic director Lauren Briggeman, who – like Herzog – has some understanding of being a caregiver. It’s easy to see the devotion she and all involved had in giving their production genuine heart – including many moments of appropriately uplifting or soothing humor. Haight plays Mary Jane with great strength, even in passing moments when the facade cracks. Castmates all exhibit empathy so convincingly it seems there truly is a sickly toddler residing on the corner of the set.

If you go to theatre for “the feels,” or are open to, I encourage you to visit “Mary Jane,” with performances through Aug. 18 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.summitperformanceindy.com.

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DivaFest: Bittersweet ‘Tomato’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “I Say Tomato, You Say Cheese,” by MaryAnne Mathews, Tom Harrison is superbly charming as Joe Carpenter, an 85-year-old man living alone — aside from the spirit of his recently-passed wife, Annie (Wendy Brown) — as best he can.

Joe’s daughter Sarah (Laura Baltz) is getting concerned, as he tends to forget and lose track of things, and keeps getting into accidents while driving. The doctor (Stefanie Patterson) confirms that his cognitive abilities are indeed on the decline.

It doesn’t help the situation that there are constantly scammers out to take advantage of the elderly. The voice of the “IRS agent” on the phone Joe can deal with, with great humor. But the fast-talking roofing contractor (Joe Maratea) is a different matter.

Mathews’ gentle drama is an interesting look at this serious situation with characters we can relate to, or even feel we’re related to. The title refers to a family story melding the old song with the meal of tomato soup and toasted cheese — like this play, comfort food for the soul.

Remaining performances are 8:15 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday (April 19-20).