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Inside the unusual process of making Mary Page Marlowe
When Susan Pourfar was cast as the title character in Tracy Letts' Mary Page Marlowe, which traces seven decades of an ordinary woman's life, she geared up for the role in an unusual way -- by consulting all the other Mary Page Marlowes. Pourfar is one of six actresses (plus a baby doll) portraying Mary Page at different ages in this New York premiere at Second Stage Theater.
"My preparation was a lot of watching the other Mary Pages in rehearsal, a lot of group discussion," she says. Due to the show's nonlinear construction, Pourfar's Mary Page is the first one the audience meets, in 1986 at age 40, in a Denny's in Dayton, Ohio. She's having a difficult conversation with her 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, explaining how she's divorcing their father and moving them to Lexington, Kentucky.
"She is trying to be a good mother to her kids, but she's at a breaking point," Pourfar explains. The actress' only other scene is one of the last the audience sees, when Mary Page, now 44, is barely holding it together as a single mother. In between those two sequences, five other performers embody other pivotal moments in Mary Page's life, some hopeful, others heartbreaking, out of chronological order. The Mary Pages are as young as 12 (Mia Sinclair Jenness) and as old as 69 (Tony winner Blair Brown).
The playwright's decision to call for so many different Mary Pages presented Obie-winning director Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves, Miles for Mary) with a formidable challenge: how to get the audience to accept six actresses as one character. Her priority when casting was to look for similarities not in physicality but in what she sensed were their "inner lives." Like Mary Page at all her ages, the performers Neugebauer chose all struck her as resilient and self-reliant.
As rehearsals progressed, the director began to see how well the performers matched up not only to each other, but to the specific stages of Mary Page's life that they were portraying. Take Emma Geer, who plays her at 19. "Mary Page is full of hope and optimism at that age, and so is Emma, who is just beginning her life in New York," Neugebauer observes. Tatiana Maslany, who's best known for taking on 11 different identities in the TV series Orphan Black, plays Mary Page at 27 and 36, "ages when many of us are asking questions about identity," the director says. And Blair Brown channels her at 59, 63 and 69. "By that chapter in her life, Mary Page has survived a great deal," Neugebauer says. "She's forgiving of herself, she has perspective. And Blair brings such rich life experience, she has so much wisdom to offer." Indeed, Brown, who was born the same year as the fictional Mary Page, helped explain to Geer what it was like to be 19 back in 1965.
Such collegial advice turned out to be the norm. While dialect coach Gigi Buffington helped the performers sound alike, and wigs provide a cohesive look, the actresses developed the character of Mary Page Marlowe together. All the Mary Pages sat in on one another's rehearsals and were encouraged to share feedback. "You were allowed to comment on other people's scenes because it was actually your character as well," Pourfar says. "I like the way I get to reflect on my younger selves, and 'meet' my older selves. Together, as a community, we created the backstory of this woman."
To read about a student's experience at Mary Page Marlowe, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Susan Pourfar in Mary Page Marlowe. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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