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When a Role Hits Incredibly Close to Home

Date: May 24, 2018

How J. Smith-Cameron drew on personal experience for her part in Peace for Mary Frances


In the New Group's intense world-premiere drama Peace for Mary Frances, Obie winner J. Smith-Cameron portrays Alice, a middle-aged mom tending to the family's dying 90-year-old matriarch (Lois Smith). It's a role Smith-Cameron recently played off-stage, as well: "My mom just passed away last summer," she says. "I'm still processing that loss -- and I will for the rest of my life."

Despite that rawness, Smith-Cameron decided that performing in the show -- penned by Brooklyn College playwriting student Lily Thorne and directed by Lila Neugebauer -- might prove healing. "When I first read the play I thought, oh, it's a walk straight into the vortex of grief!" she says. "But it's actually a full cycle. You go all the way around it. It's a kind of a tonic as well as an immersion of the recent loss. It felt like a documentary but also like a poem."

A familiar face from stage and screen projects, including works by her husband, Oscar-winning writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, Smith-Cameron uses the word "cathartic" several times while describing her Peace for Mary Francesjourney. "It's like having an ongoing heart-to-heart or a therapy session where you're stirring everything up," she says.


The play not only explores the grief of losing a parent, but the family dynamics of dealing with that transition. Unfortunately, Mary Frances' dysfunctional clan is not handling it well. Long-standing rivalries, especially between Alice and her sister Fanny (Johanna Day), propel the narrative as three generations try to navigate the intricacies of hospice care such as regulating oxygen, delivering painkillers and coping with medication side effects. "I get to articulate all the sides of what this experience is like," Smith-Cameron says. "The frustrations, the day-to-day tedium of caretaking, the arguments with siblings."

It's not all gloomy -- the outrageous behavior of some of the characters infuses the piece with gallows humor. "There're a lot of built-in release valves," she says. "It's really more than the sum of its parts -- and there are a lot of parts. It's a smorgasbord of everything that comes along with the end-of-life experience," including the anger, the comedy, the pain and the unresolved family issues. The emotions are so acute, Smith-Cameron admits that the cast is "often spent" after performances.

Indeed, Peace for Mary Frances probably stirs up complicated feelings for many of the actors given that death and family are part of everyone's existence. There were some rehearsals when Smith-Cameron protected herself by separating her real-life pain from her character's. "But there were days when I just used it, when it felt right to just let it all be dredged up and to face it down," she says. "Actors, for the most part, find solace in being able to express their emotions. It's become second nature for me now to feel vicariously. But certainly there are times I walk off stage and feel this thud to my solar plexus about how much I miss my mom."

Despite these challenges, Smith-Cameron knew Alice was a must-do part that was "in my wheelhouse, not because of what I had just gone through but because she's a complicated woman, someone who is sweet and sharp at the same time," she says. "She's Snow White and the Wicked Stepmother in one person. It's a real grown-up part that is not just one thing. But all the women in the play are like that."

To read about a student's experience at Peace for Mary Frances, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Peace for Mary Frances. Go here to browse our current offers.

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Top image: Heather Burns, Lois Smith and J. Smith-Cameron in Peace for Mary Frances. Photos by Monique Carboni.