In Steppenwolf's 'Mary Page Marlowe,' 7 Actresses Play One Fractured Woman

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 15, 2016 2:23PM

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'Mary Page Marlowe' at the Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In the final scene of Steppenwolf’s production of Mary Page Marlowe, the 63-year-old version of the titular character (Blair Brown) finds herself at the dry cleaners, asking about restoring a quilt that has been a family heirloom for generations. Each piece was stitched together by various women in her family, and it depicts mostly pastoral scenes and domestic life. Only one square, Mary Page says, is different than the others: It depicts a shrouded woman looking askance, adding an element of mystery to an otherwise ordinary quilt.

It’s no stretch to say that playwright Tracy Letts—author of the Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County and Superior Donuts, which is being turned into a Chicago-based TV show—has used the quilt imagery as a metaphor for Mary Page herself. She’s the mysterious woman, of course, and the quilt evokes the patchwork of “selves” that Mary Page has embodied in her life.

The play’s structure highlights this further. In each scene, we see Mary Page at a different life stage, each version of her portrayed by a different actress. From the beginning, the audience feels as if we’re dropping in on Mary Page’s life, but without a sequential chronology. We first encounter Mary Page as a 40-year-old mother (Rebecca Spence), explaining to her teen children that she’s divorcing their father and moving the family to Kentucky. In the next scene, we see Mary Page as a 19-year-old college student (Annie Munch), talking about traveling to Paris and her yearning for independence. In another, Mary Page is only an infant, and her World War II-era parents are arguing heatedly about conflicting parental expectations. Each scene—each piece of the quilt—gives the audience a slightly more detailed portrait of a woman no more extraordinary or ordinary than anyone else’s—but nevertheless compelling.

Letts' setup works on a scene-by-scene basis, but the parts of this play are greater than their sum, as evidenced by its abrupt, unsatisfying ending. The show doesn’t go so far as to feel disjointed (a lot of credit for that goes to Todd Rosenthal’s smooth set design and Linda Roethke’s costumes), it’s difficult to construct a driving central conflict when, with every scene change, Mary Page's age and life experience change drastically. She's not even sure who she’s supposed to be, herself. “I’m not the person I am,” says the 36-year-old Mary Page (Carrie Coon), in discussion with her therapist. “I’m a great actress.”

She might not be the person that she thinks she is, but that element of mystery is what makes her square stand out on the patchwork quilt. And perhaps Letts is showing us that when you spend a lifetime constructing the person that you think you are, you spend a lot of time believing that you’re someone else.

The show runs through Sunday, May 29 at the Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted. Buy tickets online, or by calling (312) 335-1650.