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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Realistic theater powers ‘Mary Jane’ at UW-Green Bay

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance

A mother (Guinevere Casper, right) who is awaiting her son from surgery is comforted by a Buddhist nun (Tara Jackson) in a scene from “Mary Jane” presented by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance. (UWGB photo)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

A heart monitor pulses and pulses.

And pulses… pulses… pulses… pulses… skip… pulses… pulses…

You are not in a hospital… waiting. You are in a theater… waiting.

Pulses… pulses… pulses… pulses… skip… pulses… pulses…

The skips must mean the heart being monitored is not quite right.

A relentlessness is part of the waiting – always is.

This time, you are waiting for a play to begin. Normally, sounds of chatting are heard. This time, pulses… pulses… pulses… pulses… pulses… snuff out conversation. A sense of seriousness takes over.

You are looking at a small apartment – doorway to your left, a tall bookshelf, a sink, a couch/foldaway bed and a refrigerator being dominant features. The fridge looks like it could be from a museum.

As the lights dim for the play to start, the pulsing of the monitor stops. Relief!

A new pulse… pulse… pulse… pulse… pulses… begins. It is the everyday life of a single mother whose son has lived by a thread since his premature birth two years ago.

What playwright Amy Herzog has done is take the situation of a mother devoted to a child whose normal is inability to swallow or hold his head up or breathe on his own or… or… or… and condense her relentless life style into a bit more than an hour and a half.

The experience of the play is akin to an adrenalin rush – so much intensity squished into so little time.

Realism in plays is one thing. This condensing of the mother’s day-after-day trials is realism-plus.

The name of the mother is Mary Jane, which is the title of the play. Going in, I wondered about the name. Still do. Why Mary Jane? Why a name that is slang for marijuana? Perhaps there is a subtle significance in the makeup of the mother. Perhaps not.

“Mary Jane” is being presented by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance for four more performances in Jean Weidner Theatre, the condensed black box theater within the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

Directing is guest director Noah Simon, who brings with him a toolbox of acting equipment for building meaningful characters. Noah Simon also adds music of his creation for an extra element of this production.

Just as the mother Mary Jane is devoted to her child, the cast is devoted to this play and its characters. Even though some characters are a generation older than the players, the souls of the characters come through.

Central is Guinevere Casper as Mary Jane. Guinevere Casper’s performance is extraordinary, not just for a collegiate performer but a performer, period. She is especially pliable in expression, in intonation, in soulfulness.

In a monologue, Guinevere Casper pours out the unrelenting needs of the son in detail as she speaks directly at individuals in the audience, her eyes sweeping from person to person. Mary Jane and her needs and demands upon her seem very much present. Searing stuff.

Eight people enter the life of Mary Jane in the play. The son, Alex, is mostly represented off stage. The unseen husband is now ex, the child being too much for him to handle.

The eight characters are represented by four players. Each character brings a new facet to not only Mary Jane’s challenges and how she deals with them but sometimes how life imposes challenges in other ways.

Guinevere Casper, left, as Mary Jane and Alyssa Hannam as Sherry. (UWGB photo)

Alyssa Hannam portrays Sherry, a veteran and knowing nurse, and Dr. Toros, a children’s physician maneuvering from one timebomb situation to another.

Kylie Heisz portrays Amelia, a learner caregiver thrown into a 9-1-1 emergency with Alex, and Kat, a music specialist blindly scheduled for the wrong moment.

Tara Jackson portrays Ruthie, the building superintendent whose conscientiousness is put to the test, and Tenkei, a longtime former teacher now fresh to being a Buddhist nun.

McKenna Seegers portrays Brianne, mother of a child with a similar condition who learns a multitude of important tips from Mary Jane, and Chaya, a Hasidic mother of seven who brings comfort.

Humor pops up along the way. Mary Jane is a bit blithe, so she sometimes teases. The music specialist is good for two laughs. The climax arrives on the heels of comic relief as the Buddhist nun and Mary Jane try to figure out the sex of Alex’s goldfish from the eight steps that are part of such identification.

Action takes place in two places. First, there is Mary Jane’s apartment. And then, remarkably, a whole wall filling much of the performance space is turned to reveal a hospital waiting room. Again, it is realistic, including institutional greens on the wall and counter area, a wavy sculptural effect on the wall and snacks and a little fridge and water, et al, in service areas.

Amy Herzog and this production capture the powerful force that is motherhood.

Mary Janes are all around.

“Mary Jane” speaks for those mothers.    

***

Creative: Playwright – Amy Herzog; director – Noah Simon; scenic and properties designer – Jeffrey Paul Entwistle; costume designer – Kaoime E. Malloy; technical director, lighting designer, sound designer – Dinesh Yadav; assistant technical director – David Cook; production stage manager – Hayden Barlas; original music – Noah Simon

Cast:

Mary Jane – Guinevere Casper

Sherry/Dr. Toros – Alyssa Hannam

Amelia/Kat – Kylie Heisz

Ruthie/Tenkei – Tara Jackson

Brianne/Chaya – McKenna Seegers

Running time: One hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23, 24, 25, 26

Info: weidnercenter.com

***

NEXT: “The Rocky Horror Show” by Richard O’Brien, Nov. 21-23, University Theatre.

VENUE: Jean Weidner Theatre is a fully outfitted black-box space (no adornments; focus on the stage) located in the southeast corner of the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The space is devoted to UWGB Theatre and Dance programs. Entrance is by way of a set of steps in an “L” in a hallway connecting the theater to the outside in one direction and the rest of the large building in the other. The room has height – more than two stories. The audience enters at approximately a second-story level. Viewing is downward, like that of an amphitheater. The performance space is intimate, demanding that the actors be focused on stage, despite being surrounded by prying eyes. The theater is the smallest of three contained in the Weidner Center.

THE PERSON: Jean Weidner was a psychotherapist and wife of Edward Weidner, founding chancellor of UWGB. The Weidners had four children. Jean Weidner died in 1997. A memorial service was held for her on the stage of the Weidner Center’s main stage amid spectacular set pieces of a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

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