'Mary Jane' review — Rachel McAdams soars in poignant slice-of-life play

Read our review of Mary Jane on Broadway, which stars Rachel McAdams in the title role and is written by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominee Amy Herzog.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Running roughly 95 minutes, Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane could rightly be called compact. But there’s nothing small about this carefully constructed and deeply affecting drama starring Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams as the titular single mother of a severely ill child.

We meet the easygoing, matter-of-fact mom in her cramped, no-frills apartment in Queens, New York. She shoots the breeze with her building superintendent about her clogged sink and window guards. No biggie. Mary Jane appears to be every bit as ordinary as her name.

Then a monitor beeps from the bedroom, a sign that something serious is going on with Alex, her 2-year-old son. Over the span of three months, Mary Jane comes into sharper focus through a series of quietly engaging encounters – one-on-ones, mostly – with women in her life. That makeshift family includes medical professionals, other mothers, and a hospital chaplain.

Born 15 weeks premature, Alex suffered a brain bleed early on. “He had all these tubes… like spaghetti strung through him everywhere,” Mary Jane tells a visitor. Caring for her son with physical and mental disabilities, and everything that goes with it – exhaustion, isolation, joys of little victories – has been her life since. An hour into the show, an emergency sends Alex to the hospital. Time is more precious. Time is running out.

In less assured hands, the play could be a downer or familiar movie-of-the-week material. It transcends both traps. Mary Jane is clear-eyed, compassionate, and leavened with humor. Herzog (4000 Miles, 2023's Broadway adaptation of A Doll’s House) is known for her fine-tuned, lived-in dialogue. Director Anne Kauffman’s cast breathe life into the script beautifully.

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Mary Jane summary

Seen off Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017, Mary Jane dives into the life of a resilient single mother navigating the challenges of raising a very sick son in New York City. The Obie- and New York Drama Critics Award-winning Off-Broadway production, also directed by Kauffman, starred Carrie Coon (The Gilded Age).

The play intimately explores the complexities of caregiving, friendship, the fragility of life, and need for a network to survive. “My community makes things easier in certain ways,” a mom tells Mary Jane. The play is a compelling portrait of a mother’s unwavering devotion. Drawn from Herzog’s personal experience, the play is also a self-portrait.

What to expect at Mary Jane

Famous for the movies The Notebook, Mean Girls, and Spotlight, McAdams’s star power is a magnet for many theatregoers. In her Broadway debut, she’s a natural on stage. Her endless optimism as Mary Jane eventually emerges for what it is – a source of control to keep chaos at bay.

McAdams is surrounded by four terrific actresses playing dual roles. Brenda Wehle brings lightness as a no-nonsense super and a spiritual glow as a hospital pastor, while Susan Pourfar adds invaluable depth as moms with sick kids who relate to Mary Jane on a different level. Both actresses reprise their Off-Broadway roles.

April Matthis and Lily Santiago lend ace support: Matthis plays a compassionate home nurse and a doctor delivering a hard truth, and Santiago a young woman newly meeting Alex and a music therapist.

Like the performance, Lael Jellinek’s scenic design is attention-grabbing. The set goes through a dramatic transformation as Mary Jane confronts a cruel crossroad. As her home slowly fades from view, it’s a vivid reflection of what is happening in her life. In a way, these walls can talk.

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What audiences are saying about Mary Jane

Mary Jane earned an overall 78% rating on Show-Score, where audience members have celebrated the writing, acting, and direction of the play at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

  • “See it if you enjoy a well-crafted play with excellent acting. Amy Herzog seems to be having an excellent season. Show-Score user Claude 7183
  • “Rachel McAdams brings a nice levity to the role […] She makes the role her own.” Show-Score user Mariah
  • “The ending is very abrupt. While a sense of closure or unambiguous ending doesn’t necessarily suit the subject matter, I was left more with a feeling of ‘that’s it’ rather than something to mull over.” Show-Score user gostak

Who should see Mary Jane

  • Audience members who enjoy seeing movie stars on stage will appreciate the up-close experience of watching Rachel McAdams at work.
  • Theatregoers who appreciated Mary Jane off Broadway will savor a second helping of what Herzog, Kauffman, and the cast deliver again.
  • Fans of Herzog's work should attend. The writer is represented on Broadway now with Mary Jane as well as with her translation of the Ibsen classic An Enemy of the People, starring Jeremy Strong.

Learn more about Mary Jane on Broadway

Mary Jane is a poignant slice of life and a reminder of how much power can be packed into a 90-minute play.

Learn more and get Mary Jane tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Mary Jane is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through June 2.

Additional Mary Jane content

Photo credit: Mary Jane on Broadway. (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

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