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The Seven Ages of Mary Page Marlowe

Tracy Letts's latest play at Second Stage Theater examines how we change and how we stay the same.

Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust, and Susan Pourfar perform the first scene of Tracy Letts's Mary Page Marlowe, directed by Lila Neugebauer, at Second Stage Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

When you look back on your life, do you recognize yourself in it? In Mary Page Marlowe, Tracy Letts highlights the transformational changes that can take place in one lifetime by casting several different actors to play the title character. This isn't a novel concept: Edward Albee used the same device in Three Tall Women (which recently had a remarkable Broadway revival). Other writers have followed suit in the musical theater with Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and the forthcoming Cher Show. While those scripts employ three different actors in the same role, Mary Page Marlowe supersizes the idea with six, and one baby noise sound cue, playing the same person. The result is a play that is engrossing, if needlessly grandiose and not as formally daring as a first glance might suggest.

Letts has a gift for placing recognizably human characters in familiar circumstances and making it feel like an extraordinary theatrical event. The author of August: Osage County and Man From Nebraska brings that same magic to Mary Page Marlowe, presenting 11 scenes from the life of one Ohio woman — completely out of chronological order. The play opens in a Denny's restaurant in Dayton, with a 40-year-old Mary (Susan Pourfar) explaining to her son (Ryan Foust) and daughter (Kayli Carter) that she is moving to Lexington now that she has divorced their father. Then we see a 19-year-old Mary Page (Emma Geer) telling her college friends (Audrey Corsa and Tess Frazer) that she's not ready to get married. With Brechtian sleight of hand, Letts then shows us a 63-year-old Mary Page (Blair Brown) contentedly watching House with husband No. 3 (Brian Kerwin). It's a little like leafing through a photo album.

Blair Brown plays Mary Page (age 59), and Brian Kerwin plays her third husband in Mary Page Marlowe.
(© Joan Marcus)

Those snapshots appear in vivid color thanks to this excellent 18-person cast, particularly the six women playing Mary Page. Tatiana Maslany acidly embodies her at a cynical 36, telling her shrink (Marcia DeBonis) how she has been a passive character in her life: "All of it happened to me, and I went along with it," she says with just a bit too much vinegar to be believed. Her frankness carries over to Kellie Overbey's 50-year-old Mary Page, who calmly explains her legal troubles to husband No. 2 (David Aaron Baker). When he refuses to listen, she unleashes the line, "I've got a voice and I CAN SCREAM," which doesn't quite have the impact of previous Lettsian declarations of agency, despite Overbey's emotionally startling performance.

Director Lila Neugebauer impressively binds the six Mary Pages together in spiritual unity, with mannerisms and attitudes carrying through the performances, even as Kaye Voyce's authentic period costumes shift with every scene. Tyler Micoleau's fuzzy lighting and Bray Poor's dreamy original music makes the disjointed narrative feel part of a whole, like tracks in a life set to shuffle. Laura Jellineck's set looks somewhat like a melting garage door, white panels slide out from the set to form a staircase in Mary Page's childhood home, or a counter at the dry cleaners, ingeniously creating new playing space from a nebulous art installation.

Marcia DeBonis plays the shrink, and Tatiana Maslany plays Mary Page (age 36) in Mary Page Marlowe.
(© Joan Marcus)

Unfortunately, this concept is not taken far enough, with most scenes rolling in on flat platforms that have only the slightest relationship with the upstage superstructure. Similarly disappointing, the supporting actors each play only one role and (with the exception of Carter) appear only in one scene, making Mary Page Marlowe simultaneously less theatrical and more expensive than it needs to be. And while Neugebauer finds some beautiful opportunities for the different Mary Pages to cross paths during the scene transitions, these echoes in time don't feel especially resonant within the story. It all makes us wonder if Mary Page Marlowe would have worked better as an independent film.

The play is undoubtedly profound in its normality, powerfully asserting that each life has the potential to be an epic journey (even if you only physically travel from Ohio to Kentucky). And like the ancient Greeks weighing free will against fate, American audiences will certainly debate how much control Mary Page Marlowe (a middle-class woman living in the latter half of the 20th century) really had over the direction of her life. That makes Mary Page Marlowe good enough for a summer evening at the theater, but not as extraordinary as it could be.