To what extent do we remain mysterious to the people who presume to know us best? To what extent do we remain mysterious even to ourselves? These, and many more, are the questions at the heart of Tracy Letts’ Mary Page Marlowe, a play that depicts 11 moments in the life of a woman. These scenes, often seemingly inconsequential and told out of chronological order, paint not only the portrait of a person, but raise fundamental questions about the ways in which we live our lives—sometimes many times over within a single lifetime.
When Lila Neugebauer, who is directing the New York premiere for Second Stage Theater, read the script, she found it “disarmingly persuasive.” Disarming because the title character, an accountant from the Midwest born in the 1940s, is in many senses of the word ordinary. The dedication of an entire play to her seems, at first, unexpected.
“I was astonished and moved to encounter a play in which there is a deep and probing investigation into the life of a fundamentally ordinary person,” explains the director. “Handled with exquisite delicacy and insight, humanity and grace… I found the play startlingly personal.”
Six different actors play Mary Page in the Off-Broadway premiere. And while Neugebauer looked for both physical and innate commonalities between the women, she also wanted each actor to embody something different. “Where Tracy Letts has delineated the casting breaks is not remotely incidental,” says Neugebauer. The different versions of Mary Page are “separated by vital and transformative thresholds in her life. … Part of what’s at work in the play is the knowledge that we all live many lives inside of our one mortal life.”
Neugebauer, who is currently having a moment in the spotlight following her critically acclaimed staging of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, is drawn to plays that say something profound about the human experience. “[I look for] some kernel of insight in the writing—some revelation, some deep-seated observation, about what makes us tick and how we work,” says the director. For her, theatre is a way to invite different points of views and challenge people’s preconceived beliefs about the ways in which they live their lives.
“There are few spaces that I know in my life in which I feel a genuine capacity to invent a temporary community, in which, if we do it well, we might have a shot at engendering empathy where there wasn’t before,” says Neugebauer. “Idealistic as it may be, I continue to believe that can be possible, through a live experience that is predicated on the spontaneous and temporary creation of a community that exists in the space between a group of performers and an audience.”