Thursday, May 30, 2024

Amy Herzog Wants You to Enter Into the Strangeness of Caregiving

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A child we cannot see is in danger. We hear the beeping of medical monitors. We hear his nurse say, with sudden sharpness, “I don’t like this.” We hear his mother’s voice, threading through the noise, rising above it, as she tries to rouse him, asks him to stay with her. Someone—a visitor—runs to find a phone to call an ambulance. She cannot find the phone, she almost drops the phone—what’s the address again?

It was at this point that the woman sitting next to me, in the audience, covered her eyes.

The episode lasts mere minutes. It is entirely overheard, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such tension in a theatre before—a tension that ripples with the sudden, surprising twists of language and feeling distinctive of the playwright Amy Herzog. The new production of her play “Mary Jane,” directed by Anne Kauffman, recently opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. (It had its Off Broadway début, also directed by Kauffman, in 2017.) The one-act play begins in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, in which a single mother, Mary Jane (a superb Rachel McAdams), cares for her two-year-old son, Alex, who was born with serious medical conditions, including cerebral palsy. We never see the child; he is known to us by the beeping of the machines in the apartment’s bedroom, the suctioning sounds of his airway being cleared—and, above all, by the affection, by the care, by the detail with which he is discussed by his mother and his nurse (April Matthis). (“He gave me that look,” the nurse says to Mary Jane, who chuckles in recognition.)

Three blocks north, at Circle in the Square Theatre, Herzog has another play this season, her adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” from 1882. Directed by her husband, Sam Gold, the play is helmed by “Succession” ’s Jeremy Strong as a heroic, much monologuing whistle-blower in a small town threatened by environmental catastrophe. (It is Herzog’s second adaptation of Ibsen; she made her Broadway début last year, with the acclaimed revival of “A Doll’s House,” starring Jessica Chastain.)

If “An Enemy of the People” is, as Herzog describes it, “men arguing about politics,” “Mary Jane” features a small, all-female cast quietly and collaboratively going about the business of survival. Each actor, save McAdams, has a dual role. A nurse reappears as a doctor in the second act. A young woman, reeling from her newborn’s diagnosis, comes back as a seasoned mother of a sick child, a veteran of long hospital stays.

Herzog’s career in the theatre began as an actor, and she writes delicately shaded roles, never more so than in this play, with this particular heroine, Mary Jane, a Job-like figure who meets each loss, each intensification of her suffering, with a corresponding intensification of her own openness to the world, an enigmatic, almost defiant gentleness and attentiveness to those she encounters.

Kauffman, a frequent collaborator, has called Herzog “an inexhaustible excavator.” Her plays often pluck from life, from family history. “After the Revolution” (2010) and “4000 Miles,” (2011), a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, both followed a character closely modelled on her grandmother, who was an ardent Greenwich Village lefty. “Mary Jane” is even closer to the bone. Herzog wrote the play while in the thick of caring for her elder daughter, who was born with a rare muscular disease called nemaline myopathy. She died last year, at age eleven. What Herzog brings to the stage is the richness of the relationship within the family but also within a larger constellation of caregivers. The conversations with doctors and nurses are rendered with piercing specificity.

Herzog and I spoke twice, on the phone and once, in person, at her local café. It could have been my local café—it was scarcely ten minutes from where I’ve lived for nearly two decades. But I had never been there. To get there I took a left turn where I would have ordinarily walked right, and found myself somewhere deeply familiar and entirely unknown.

Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start with what I think is my favorite moment in the play. Mary Jane is at the hospital, with Alex. She meets another mother—an Orthodox Jewish woman named Chaya—who is also watching over her sick child. The children are sleeping, so the women have time to talk. Chaya says something like “I don’t know if I can describe it.” And Mary Jane sort of shifts in her chair, she moves her body so she’s facing Chaya, and what does she say?

“Sure you can.”

Sure you can.” It’s tempting to imagine this dialogue happening in the mind of the playwright: I can’t describe this. Sure, you can. Can you tell me a little bit about early days of writing this play, of thinking your way into it—did it feel like there was some kind of resistance that had to be breached, some kind of reluctance?

Yes. Part of it was thinking about God and how embarrassing it is to do that in front of other people, but also writing about having a sick child—to me, a nuclear subject, in the sense of whether you can avoid sentimentality and avoid the traps of that genre, and whether there’s any way to fight the audience’s expectation of what that will be.

The sentimental, the therapeutic—all these genres that we’re not supposed to touch. But you would have to push some of that fear aside just to see what comes; you would have to risk sentimentality, I would assume.

You do. I also tried to approach each one of these scenes sideways. I think that has been true in all my plays to some extent, but in this one I needed a formal experiment to make me feel like I’m doing something other than entering into this terrifying, potentially sentimental subject. And the experiment was: Can I bleed conflict out of this play almost entirely? Can the scenes between all these women not really involve conflict? I mean, there’s conflict with the outside world, with the bureaucracy, with the medical system, with God, but not really with each other.

There are no antagonists in this play.

There are offstage antagonists, but no onstage antagonists in this play. The closest thing is the music therapist who is elusive but does finally turn up. And that to me helped me feel like there’s an intellectual project that is like a cover for all the other stuff.

I had a strong feeling while I was watching the play—although “watching” suddenly feels very wrong, I felt inside the play, or somehow with the play—I had a sense that you didn’t want me to just feel. I had a sense you wanted something else from me. You had some other design, something for me to apprehend.

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