Ever reliable, Lois Smith is giving a searing performance in the title role of Lily Thorne’s play, “Peace for Mary Frances,” a presentation by The New Group. But peace is extremely elusive as 90-year-old Mary Frances, born of parents who fled the slaughter of Armenians, proceeds toward death attached to oxygen to ease her terminal breathing difficulties. Even worse is her need to referee the bitter dispute between her two daughters, who hate each other passionately as they compete for their mother’s approval.
The play, set in West Hartford, Conn., provides an especially nasty family portrait, with endless, mean-spirited bickering. Some of it is about money. Mary Frances’s late husband worked his way up from being an immigrant to leaving his wife a million dollars. It has been set up in a trust fund, and the son in the family, Eddie, as played by Paul Lazar, lethargically handles his mother’s taxes and finances while trying to steer clear of his sisters’ hassles.
The warring sisters are Fanny (Johanna Day), who has had to overcome a drug problem, which once landed her in the clink, and Alice (J. Smith-Cameron), who has been caring for her mother, is unable to work and relies on being given expenses, which her mother resentfully interprets as having to pay her own daughter for taking care of her. Alice has two daughters, one with a new baby and apparently not too happy in her marriage, the other an actress who complains of always living other people’s lives. Both women become involved in the nasty family battling.
The action takes place on a functional two-level set designed by Dane Laffrey, on the lower level the living room, and on the upper level the bedroom to which Mary Frances is increasingly confined.
Through it all Smith gives an admirable, dominating performance. She flashes anger, desperation, mordant humor and her desire to control finances and what will happen after her impending death. She longs to go peacefully, relies on a home-hospice aide to provide enough morphine to ease the outbursts of pain. She yearns to die with grace, but constantly is faced with the ugly problems, which the author details in her bitter family-from-hell portrait. How will the situation ultimately be resolved?
Despite the excellent cast and the memorable acting by Smith, Thorne’s drama runs too long, a difficulty director Lila Neugebauer can’t solve even with her often piercing staging. One can tire of the infighting and feel that all that needs to be said could be done in a shorter time than the play’s two hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission. There’s only so much of this family that one can or should have to take. At the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-270-4200. Reviewed May 24, 2018.