By Jason Grote
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Here is what happened, all those hundreds of years ago, as re-imagined in Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, is framed by a forged letter and executed for a treason she never committed, even though her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, knew that she was not guilty. Here’s what happens in the absolutely astonishing world premiere now playing at Woolly Mammoth: Stuart (Eli James) has had his romantic dreams sustained for his entire adult life by a letter which he hides in a bust of Friedrich Schiller – a letter which may have been forged.
Truth is the object of art, even where the art is fiction and even where the fiction defies the laws of gravity, cause and effect, and time as much as this one does. Grote grounds his play about magic firmly in the mundane (set designer James Kronzer nails this conceit by creating a set of two kitchens, whose cabinets disappear into the sky). Stuart, a comic-book writer who has acquired the rights to a superhero who is also a mailman, is nonetheless constrained to live at home with his tightly-wound mother, Marnie (Amy McWilliams). Across suburbia, his lovely cousin Hannah (Meghan Grady) is visiting her mother Lizzie (Emily Townley), who is even more tightly wound and foul-mouthed and provocatively dressed to boot. Lizzie is caring, briefly, for Ruthie (Sarah Marshall), who is her mother and Marnie’s. Ruthie is there on a day pass from the nursing home to celebrate her birthday with her family. Marnie’s responsibility is to bring their older sister Sylvia (Naomi Jacobson) from the halfway house. Sylvia – trust me, this is funnier than it sounds – lost her hands in a suicide attempt, and now deftly wends her way through life with prosthetic hooks.
This supremely unhappy family wears its lies and denials like an overcoat on a hot August day. Ruthie, barreling toward senescence, cannot even bear to admit what happened to her daughter. “Did you hear what happened to the Weissman’s girl, Paulette Weissman?” she asks, before spinning out Sylvia’s story.
Truth is the subject as well as the object of this play. Ruthie, disinhibited by her dementia, loses any vestige of diplomacy. “Marnie, have you gained weight? I don’t remember your derriere being that big,” she asks her control-freak daughter, who you just know has a refrigerator full of diet soda. “I remember it being big but not that big.” But, while she no longer tells the little white lies (and neither do her daughters, if to do otherwise gives them an opportunity to be cruel) she, like her descendants, ritually observes a lying silence on the big truths which are bringing them to ruin.
Truth is also the technique. Maria/Stuart is full of secrets and principals, which Grote metes out at so measured a pace, and with such precision and deliberation, that to reveal them here would be to diminish the pleasure you will take from them.
All right, here’s a secret I can reveal: there is a spirit creature, which can assume the shape of any family member, who speaks German and fractured English, and sends faxes, whose mission is to compel this sad family to face the truth, and also drink up all their soda. And here’s a family principal: when the truth, seen with your own eyes, contradicts socially accepted norms, the sane thing to do is to lie.
I cannot tell you the fantastic story of this family, since Grote does it so much better than I could. But I can give you three good reasons to go to this show:
1. The writing is tremendous. Grote, who wrote the superb This Storm Is What We Call Progress which played recently at Rorschach, is a master at taking contemporary idiom, with all its imprecision and gaps, and turning it into an instrument of power and grace. And laughs. Big laughs.
2. The acting is incredible. This is the best I have ever seen Sarah Marshall, and I’ve seen her be awfully, awfully good in a lot of different shows. Here her comic timing is brilliant, and she makes Ruthie a malevolent little creature who holds her fierce daughters at bay. As for Naomi Jacobson, she is the real shape-shifter; there is not another actor in Washington who so completely submerges herself into her role. The remaining cast is similarly terrific – funny, credible and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
3. The amazing ending. At the end of the play, Stuart gets a phone call, and in two sentences – one from him, and one from his mother – the entire emotional center of gravity shifts. The ending is brilliant and cynical and perfect.
Tremendous, incredible, amazing…Maria/Stuart is a gorgeous way to begin the 2008-2009 theatrical season. If every show is as good as this, brothers and sisters, just put the rest of your life on hold, and prepare to be entertained.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.
When: Wed. through Sun. until Sept. 14. Sunday shows are at two and seven; all other shows at 8.
Where: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington
Tickets: Range from $26 to $60. Call 202.393.3939 or go to www.woollymammoth.net.
More information: www.woollymammoth.net