Crazy about ‘Crazy Mary’
It’s the human condition.
And playwright A.R. Gurney is a pro at dissecting the human condition, commenting on it by examining the lives of affluent WASPs from the Northeast.
“Crazy Mary,” playing at the Sugden Community Theatre, is one of Mr. Gurney’s more recent forays into the minefields of money and family.
The titular character, movingly played by Naples Players veteran Ann Hoover, has been living in an upscale psychiatric institution for three decades, with an extremely generous trust fund ensuring that she’s very well provided for.
But then there’s a death in the family, and Lydia (Diane Davis), a second cousin once removed, becomes Mary’s legal guardian. She and her son Skip (Chris Valente), a Harvard student, make a visit to see how Mary is faring.
Though they played together as girls, you get the distinct impression that Lydia is more interested in the money than her cousin’s welfare; after all, her husband has left her and she’s selling real estate in Buffalo. She longs for a Lexus and “to fly to Europe first class every other year, like my parents did.”
Ms. Davis plays Lydia with equal parts bitchiness and anxiety. She possesses an irritating sense of entitlement, but the chinks in her armor reveal a writhing insecurity.
“Money helps,” she declares at one point. “It helps you live. It helps you breathe.” In another scene, she tells her son that “money helps you get friends,” though she doesn’t elaborate on the dependability of a friendship that can be bought.
Ms. Davis’s portrayal is highly entertaining, whether she’s knocking back a pill to calm her nerves or nagging her son about becoming a doctor or lawyer.
Though the play’s called “Crazy Mary,” the psychiatrist, Jerome (Vic Caroli), and nurse, Pearl (Erin Laughlin), affectionately refer to the title character as “our Mary” and “our girl.” They appear to have a closer relationship to her than her family does.
Mr. Caroli, always a pleasure to see on stage, plays a laid-back therapist in Birkenstocks, earring and a small silver braid. (Hats off to Ulla Doose for such on-target costume design.) While Jerome’s concern appears genuine, he also seems to want to use Mary for gain. Mary has so much money that some of it is regularly diverted for other purposes.
Further muddying already murky ethical waters, Jerome wants to write a book about Mary.
Director Paul Graffy has Jerome sit on the sidelines at times, watching and taking notes while Mary and her family interact. He’s so genial, he seems harmless, yet you can’t help but wonder if he’s using Mary for his own benefit.
Ms. Laughlin plays nurse Pearl as a woman with fierce determination. Very protective of Mary, she looks after her almost as if the patient is her child. And Ms. Laughlin has some golden comedic moments, such as when she’s pressured into putting on an Irish accent. (In the original production, Pearl was played by a woman of color, which most likely made those scenes even more hilarious.)
With his perfectly coiffed and highlighted hair, Mr. Valente competently plays the privileged son who doesn’t even recognize how good he has it. He wants to abandon his studies at Harvard and become a farmer. I wasn’t sure if this is a genuine desire, or if Mr. Gurney is trying to show us how self-deceived the young man is. It’s difficult to imagine Skip working the land; he doesn’t seem the type willing to do hard manual labor or get dirt under his nails, let alone allow a lock of hair to stray out of place.
(When Skip falls in love, I would have liked to be more convinced of that too. But Mr. Valente’s character is very earnest, and his tiffs with his mother ring true.)
Ms. Hoover as Mary is simply astounding. In a powerful portrayal that has to be one of her best performances, she displays a breathtaking emotional nakedness.
When we first meet her, Mary is eerily uncommunicative, almost catatonic, though we can see a glimpse of something inside, something that doesn’t quite swim to the surface. As the play progresses, she blossoms — sometimes with unexpectedly humorous results.
As Mary becomes much more engaged with those around her, they refer to Charles Dickens’s phrase, “recalled to life.” Her psychiatrist thinks her new meds could be responsible, but it seems that the playwright is simply showing us the simple power of positive attention and love. Perhaps it’s easier to be recalled to life if there’s someone doing the recalling.
Director Mr. Graffy has done an excellent job with this play, beginning with casting; these are the perfect actors for their roles. He’s drawn nuanced performances out of them, providing us with both pathos and humor. The actors play their roles seriously, not going for an easy laugh. They get the tone exactly right.
Pat Ashton’s set is also perfect: a lovely sitting room that betrays its institutional purposes. There’s elegant yet nondescript wallpaper on the walls, but also a bulletin board with notices and a lit “EXIT” sign over the door. Mr. Aston has paid careful attention to detail; when doors are opened, we can see painted hallways with artwork on the walls, and there’s even a water sprinkler system in the ceiling in case of fire.
You believe that these characters have a life that continues on even after they leave the Tobye’s small stage.
Not only does Mr. Gurney’s unusual little play make us laugh and cry, it also leaves us with plenty of food for thought.
In one dramatic scene, one character accuses another of being “eager for love.”
Aren’t we all?
That’s what Mr. Gurney seems to be saying.
That, and look at how life changes when we’re loved for who we are. ¦
.. in the know
>> What: “Crazy Mary”
>> When: through April 17
>> Where: The Tobye Studio at the
Sugden Community Theatre,
701 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
>> Tickets: $20 ($10 for students 18
>> Info: 263-7990 or