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Tracy Letts and the case of the missing play

The best parts of Steppenwolf's Mary Page Marlowe may be the ones that aren't there.

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And you may ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?" —Talking Heads

I had been thinking about the ways in which I seem to be different people at different times in my life," Tracy Letts told Chicago magazine's Novid Parsi, by way of explaining the genesis of his play Mary Page Marlowe, getting its world premiere now at Steppenwolf Theatre. Sure enough, MPM follows its title character through a lifetime's worth of identities—seven of them in all, perhaps to correspond with the seven ages Jaques lists during his famous all-the-world's-a-stage speech in As You Like It. We see Mary Page as a baby, a 12-year-old girl, and a 19-year-old college student anxious for adventure; as a young married woman and a mother on the cusp of divorce, at 50 and as an old lady in her final years.

Only not in that order.

Letts has chosen to shuffle the chronology so that, for instance, we meet the divorcing mom before the college student and the baby after the old lady. This mosaic style of storytelling matters less than you might think when it comes to comprehensibility; if you can follow the time shifts in The Godfather, Part II, you're not going to have any trouble here. But the approach also succeeds less than you might hope when it comes to illuminating Mary Page's life. This mosaic is missing crucial pieces. As I was walking out of the theater after the performance I attended, I overheard a man asking, "Is that it? It's over?" and knew exactly what he meant.

The portrait we piece together out of Letts's proliferating scenes depicts Mary Page as a boom-generation Catholic from Ohio, born in 1946 to a war-veteran father—who treats his undiagnosed PTSD with a regimen of silence and liquor—and a deeply pissed-off mom doing some 80-proof self-medicating of her own. Mary Page's collegiate wanderlust comes to nothing, and she soon enough finds herself in a marriage she succeeds in wrecking with (yes) alcohol, as well as some ferocious sleeping around that simultaneously aggravates and assuages her inner emptiness.

That first divorce is just the beginning. Thanks to an early visit with the elderly Mary Page, we know that she'll serve jail time (though we have to wait to find out why) and fumble another husband. But we also know she'll come out the other side feeling pretty good, watching House M.D. in her own living room while eating a homemade spaghetti dinner prepared by her incredibly sweet-natured number three, Andy.

And that's where the missing pieces start to matter. We're not allowed to witness how Mary Page arrives at this moment of equanimity after all the nastiness she's experienced and heaped on others—to see for ourselves at what point she turns and why. Letts gives us a couple of intriguing hints by specifying his heroine's Catholicism and her refusal, at age 50, to save herself from prison. But he lets the actual transformation take place offstage, like a battle in a Greek tragedy.

This is perfectly consistent with Letts's conceit that we are different people at different times in our lives. If Mary Page really is a series of identities rather than a single self, then transitional moments don't much matter.

Yet we know that those moments exist, not just in the world but at some stratum of Mary Page's consciousness. What's more, we know that becoming is always more exciting than having arrived. Letts perversely denies us the chance to share in what should be the most fascinating passages in the play—that is, in the play that hangs like a hungry spirit over this one, waiting to be written. No wonder that poor, confused audience member couldn't tell when the show was over.

For all that, Mary Page Marlowe has some great passages. Letts is a master at shaping scenes—especially the sort in which normal people respond to the hidden call of their compulsions—and his mastery is often evident here. A hotel-room exchange between Mary Page and one of her lovers is nothing short of magnificent in that regard. And Anna D. Shapiro's staging can be powerful in its restraint, with lots of excellent performances from a large and accomplished cast. It's not what's there that's the matter, but what isn't.  v

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