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Off-Broadway Review—Lily Thorne's “Peace for Mary Frances”

Peace for Mary Frances

Written by Lily Thorne; directed by Lila Neugebauer

Performances through June 17, 2018

Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron in Peace for Mary Frances (photo: Monique Carboni)

Lily Thorne’s Peace for Mary Frances is obviously a labor of love. Unfortunately, it’s also a labored play that attempts to do too much with too many characters, ending up far less than the sum of its parts.


As 90-year-old matriarch Mary Frances continues physically deteriorating, her daughters Fanny and Alice, son Eddie and granddaughters (Alice’s daughters) Helen and Rosie must come to terms with her mortality while dealing with seemingly everyone’s still-festering animosity. Add to this a loaded family history: Mary Frances’s grandmother was able to get out of Turkey (while pregnant with Mary Frances’s father) while the Armenian genocide was happening a century ago. That’s a lot of baggage for one script. 


Although Thorne is sympathetic to her characters, she writes too many melodramatic, even sitcomish confrontations for them: notably, the endlessly bickering Fanny and Alice often nearly coming to blows over the vastly different paths their lives have taken, which their mother’s dying has only exacerbated. 


Then there’s their lazy brother Eddie, who comes off as an afterthought compared to his sisters, popping in and out at random, which seems more an authorial intrusion than a believable character arc; indeed, when Eddie happens to be the only one in the house with Mary Frances at play’s end, there’s something artificial about it. That neither Fanny nor Alice is present might be a realistically anticlimactic real-life event, but it still feels like a dramatic cop-out.


The family’s conflicts are contrived and often risible. Helen and Rosie’s appearances don’t add anything, and making Helen an actress in a successful TV show who’d recognized by a hospice employee is good for a stray laugh but not much else. Also, their constant traveling between Manhattan and Mary Frances’s suburban Connecticut home with Rosie’s infant always in tow (no babysitter or significant other available?) smacks of arbitrariness. 


Amid such messiness, director Lila Neugebauer has difficulty getting the play to cohere dramatically, comically and emotionally: even Dane Laffrey’s two-tier set, with the living room and kitchen to the left and Mary Frances’s bedroom to the right, is an awkward fit on the cramped stage, which further drains the scenes of their immediacy and intimacy.


Paul Lazar can’t get a handle on the sketchily drawn Eddie; likewise Natalie Gold, who goes through the motions as Rosie. The always winning Heather Burns has heartfelt moments as Helen, Johanna Day fiercely channels Fanny’s simmering anger at herself and others, and the gifted J. Smith Cameron unsurprisingly makes Alice the emotional heart of the play. 


As Mary Frances, Lois Smith is by turns cantankerous, irascible and amusing: but, as with Thorne’s play, she’s never as devastating as she should be. Sadly, the final moments of Peace for Mary Frances—which should be quite shattering—pass by with barely a whimper.

Peace for Mary Frances

The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

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