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For These Performers, 'Mary Jane' Is a Welcome Homecoming

By: Carey Purcell
Date: May 02, 2024

After seven years, Brenda Wehle and Susan Pourfar reprise their performances in Amy Herzog's play on Broadway


Acts of faith are central to Mary Jane, Amy Herzog's poignant play about a sunny single mother (Rachel McAdams) caring for an unseen, chronically ill preschooler. Faith in humanity, health care, government programs and a higher power are all explored.

It also took acts of faith for Mary Jane, which ran at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017, to finally arrive on Broadway courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club, where it's been nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play. Brenda Wehle, who's been with the show since its downtown engagement, had been eager for Mary Jane to transfer.

"I was very specifically waiting to do this play again," Wehle says. "When we closed, they went to work on trying to move it to Broadway. There was a lot of activity… then COVID hit and shut everything down."

Yet Wehle never gave up hope. "I said, 'No, this cannot be over. This play is a perfect play, and I must do it again,'" she recalls. "It's going to be done."

In what she describes as "a weird act of faith," Wehle—who had shaved her head for her role as a Buddhist chaplain—let her hair grow and refused to cut it until the play was remounted. After seven years, she's finally bald again and reunited with Mary Jane director Anne Kauffman and costar Susan Pourfar, who plays two different mothers of critically ill kids.

Almost a decade and a pandemic have passed since Herzog wrote the play, which was inspired by her own experiences parenting a very sick child. Yet the script needed few updates. Pourfar and Wehle could only think of two changes: switching a Facebook reference to Instagram, and Mary Jane being able to work from home.

"The play speaks to whatever time it's in," Wehle says. It's about "the human condition, our needs and the ways in which they are satisfied or challenged. There are all these different rivers that flow through it. You don't have to do anything radical to the piece to bring it up to date."

Staged in Mary Jane's cramped Queens apartment which, through the magic of Lael Jellinek's scenic design, transforms into a pediatric intensive care unit, Herzog's play depicts the claustrophobia, isolation and enduring hope of caregivers. In the first half, Mary Jane multitasks from home as she works, tends to her son and welcomes a string of helpers. The second part takes place in the hospital, as Mary Jane seeks solace while her child's condition worsens. Both settings highlight the community Mary Jane cultivates with her unflagging optimism and kindness.

Wehle first plays Mary Jane's straight-talking super, who unclogs the kitchen sink while expounding on the benefits of non-Western medicine. At the hospital, she's a laconic Buddhist chaplain.

"Wearing the robe for that character, when I put it on, I felt the weight of it," Wehle says. "And I felt much more history in the character herself. She divulges very little, but there was enough inside of that to deepen her."


Rachel McAdams and Susan Pourfar
Rachel McAdams and Susan Pourfar in Mary Jane on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy


Initially, Pourfar plays an overwhelmed new mom seeking Mary's Jane's expert advice. Later at the hospital, she's an amusingly blunt Hasidic mother of another pediatric patient. She earns unexpected laughs as she commiserates with Mary Jane. It's a welcome release for the audience after so much tension.

"Laughter and tears—they're the same muscle," Pourfar says. "It's kind of like you're opening up the channel and it could be laughter, it could be tears, and it could be both at the same time. My character gets pretty graphic and pretty intimate pretty quickly. This is a woman who's accustomed to being in all-female spaces and having these kinds of conversations."

That feeling of comfort and openness was also present in rehearsals for the production, which features an overwhelmingly female and nonbinary cast and creative team.

"We've had talks in that room that I have never had in my 40 years of doing theatre," Wehle says. "Women tend to assemble and talk—as they have for centuries over time, in tents or in igloos or whatever—alone. Culturally, that's sort of a rare thing when we are working. So that was astonishing to me."

Another surprise for Wehle: the reactions sparked by her shaved head. Many strangers assume she's undergoing chemotherapy and offer their support. Like Mary Jane, she's been touched by "the empathy that's out there," says Wehle, who sees it as an extension of "the healing aspects of the play. You can walk around town and people will take care of each other."


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Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications. She recently published her first book: From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.