Amy Herzog Wants You to Enter Into the Strangeness of Caregiving

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A child we cannot see is in danger. We hear the beeping of medical monitors. We hear his nurse say, with sudden sharpness, “I don’t like this.” We hear his mother’s voice, threading through the noise, rising above it, as she tries to rouse him, asks him to stay with her. Someone—a visitor—runs to find a phone to call an ambulance. She cannot find the phone, she almost drops the phone—what’s the address again?

It was at this point that the woman sitting next to me, in the audience, covered her eyes.

The episode lasts mere minutes. It is entirely overheard, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such tension in a theatre before—a tension that ripples with the sudden, surprising twists of language and feeling distinctive of the playwright Amy Herzog. The new production of her play “Mary Jane,” directed by Anne Kauffman, recently opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. (It had its Off Broadway début, also directed by Kauffman, in 2017.) The one-act play begins in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, in which a single mother, Mary Jane (a superb Rachel McAdams), cares for her two-year-old son, Alex, who was born with serious medical conditions, including cerebral palsy. We never see the child; he is known to us by the beeping of the machines in the apartment’s bedroom, the suctioning sounds of his airway being cleared—and, above all, by the affection, by the care, by the detail with which he is discussed by his mother and his nurse (April Matthis). (“He gave me that look,” the nurse says to Mary Jane, who chuckles in recognition.)

Three blocks north, at Circle in the Square Theatre, Herzog has another play this season, her adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” from 1882. Directed by her husband, Sam Gold, the play is helmed by “Succession” ’s Jeremy Strong as a heroic, much monologuing whistle-blower in a small town threatened by environmental catastrophe. (It is Herzog’s second adaptation of Ibsen; she made her Broadway début last year, with the acclaimed revival of “A Doll’s House,” starring Jessica Chastain.)

If “An Enemy of the People” is, as Herzog describes it, “men arguing about politics,” “Mary Jane” features a small, all-female cast quietly and collaboratively going about the business of survival. Each actor, save McAdams, has a dual role. A nurse reappears as a doctor in the second act. A young woman, reeling from her newborn’s diagnosis, comes back as a seasoned mother of a sick child, a veteran of long hospital stays.

Herzog’s career in the theatre began as an actor, and she writes delicately shaded roles, never more so than in this play, with this particular heroine, Mary Jane, a Job-like figure who meets each loss, each intensification of her suffering, with a corresponding intensification of her own openness to the world, an enigmatic, almost defiant gentleness and attentiveness to those she encounters.

Kauffman, a frequent collaborator, has called Herzog “an inexhaustible excavator.” Her plays often pluck from life, from family history. “After the Revolution” (2010) and “4000 Miles,” (2011), a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, both followed a character closely modelled on her grandmother, who was an ardent Greenwich Village lefty. “Mary Jane” is even closer to the bone. Herzog wrote the play while in the thick of caring for her elder daughter, who was born with a rare muscular disease called nemaline myopathy. She died last year, at age eleven. What Herzog brings to the stage is the richness of the relationship within the family but also within a larger constellation of caregivers. The conversations with doctors and nurses are rendered with piercing specificity.

Herzog and I spoke twice, on the phone and once, in person, at her local café. It could have been my local café—it was scarcely ten minutes from where I’ve lived for nearly two decades. But I had never been there. To get there I took a left turn where I would have ordinarily walked right, and found myself somewhere deeply familiar and entirely unknown.

Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start with what I think is my favorite moment in the play. Mary Jane is at the hospital, with Alex. She meets another mother—an Orthodox Jewish woman named Chaya—who is also watching over her sick child. The children are sleeping, so the women have time to talk. Chaya says something like “I don’t know if I can describe it.” And Mary Jane sort of shifts in her chair, she moves her body so she’s facing Chaya, and what does she say?

“Sure you can.”

“Sure you can.” It’s tempting to imagine this dialogue happening in the mind of the playwright: I can’t describe this. Sure, you can. Can you tell me a little bit about early days of writing this play, of thinking your way into it—did it feel like there was some kind of resistance that had to be breached, some kind of reluctance?

Yes. Part of it was thinking about God and how embarrassing it is to do that in front of other people, but also writing about having a sick child—to me, a nuclear subject, in the sense of whether you can avoid sentimentality and avoid the traps of that genre, and whether there’s any way to fight the audience’s expectation of what that will be.

The sentimental, the therapeutic—all these genres that we’re not supposed to touch. But you would have to push some of that fear aside just to see what comes; you would have to risk sentimentality, I would assume.

You do. I also tried to approach each one of these scenes sideways. I think that has been true in all my plays to some extent, but in this one I needed a formal experiment to make me feel like I’m doing something other than entering into this terrifying, potentially sentimental subject. And the experiment was: Can I bleed conflict out of this play almost entirely? Can the scenes between all these women not really involve conflict? I mean, there’s conflict with the outside world, with the bureaucracy, with the medical system, with God, but not really with each other.

There are no antagonists in this play.

There are offstage antagonists, but no onstage antagonists in this play. The closest thing is the music therapist who is elusive but does finally turn up. And that to me helped me feel like there’s an intellectual project that is like a cover for all the other stuff.

I had a strong feeling while I was watching the play—although “watching” suddenly feels very wrong, I felt inside the play, or somehow with the play—I had a sense that you didn’t want me to just feel. I had a sense you wanted something else from me. You had some other design, something for me to apprehend.

I think there’s always a needy part of me as a writer that, when I hear people say, “I sobbed,” I’m gratified. Even though you’re right; as I was writing, I would’ve claimed really strenuously that was not my intention but to ask people to think. The word I kept using when I was writing the play, to describe it, was “strangeness.” I wanted people to enter into the strangeness of this experience as opposed to the awfulness or the sweetness or the suffering. How particular and strange it is to parent a sick child.

Tell me more about what the strangeness means—to you, to this play.

At first, the strangeness felt like a useful opposite to sentimentality. In an early scene in the play, Mary Jane is talking to another special-needs mother with all this jargon, this terminology that she has mastered in two years. I thought it was important to show her mastery and fluency, to assault the audience with that, this foreign language. A way for you to enter the world and yet keep your distance.

That weirdness—in the Lorrie Moore story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” [which was published in The New Yorker in 1997, and is set in a pediatric oncology ward], the narrator’s husband is trying to persuade her to write about it. But she uses this phrase—“a nightmare of narrative slop.” Her fear is that that’s what it will become. But instead it becomes this congregation of specific people and experiences. That specificity lets you in through a side door.

Mary Jane is written with such depth, she feels very real to me. As I was walking here, I wondered what she would make of us, talking about her.

She would ask you a lot of questions.

She would ask me a lot of questions. And she would say, as she does in the play, “You can ask me anything.” I know you didn’t want her to be saintly but she is saintly, in the sense that she is peculiar.

Odd! I love that.

How did she come to you; how did she announce herself?

How did Mary Jane come to me? A few different things. I was reading a lot of grief memoirs. I read “A Grief Observed,” and then I read “Surprised by Joy,” both by C. S. Lewis, and I came across this sentence that I feel like maybe I misapprehended at the time. It was the sentence about how when we look at a series of telegraph poles or telephone poles, the one that’s furthest away looks the smallest, but our brain compensates. We know it’s not, no part of us thinks that one is the smallest one. But with suffering, we really perceive our own suffering as larger than other people’s. And he has this aspiration to not do that, to actually perceive other people’s suffering correctly. I think Mary Jane partly came out of that intellectual idea of a person who is able to do that, who is suffering intensely, but is also in her encounters with other people taking them completely seriously.

And then also—I’m cagey about how much I talk about this—but raising a sick child and moving through that world, I met these people. Some of them were mothers. Many of them were nurses or therapists. They had this uncanny cheer that I was very suspicious of at first and assumed was Pollyannaish cheer. But I came to understand that it was my deficit, to perceive it that way, that actually people found tremendous reserves of joy and positivity in these situations.

I understand the distrust, to dismiss it as brittle, or not real, or purely professional.

And not like me. I have a real tendency toward darkness and self-pity. But those people are very real.

Hannah Arendt said something like that, that stories are cognitive tools that help us attend to that problem C. S. Lewis writes about. She said stories can take something that’s far away and bring it close so we can attend to it, intimately, but it can also take what is close to us and put it far away so we can see it clearly, in proportion. Stories can sometimes give us a more accurate sense of scale, when dealing with suffering. Where do your stories come from? You always use such interesting language when you talk about that—sometimes you say “I’ll find a play.” But then you also say “when I’m with a play,” the way we might say someone is “with child.”

“With play” came from Edward Albee. [When I wrote] my very first play, “After the Revolution,” those of us who were in the Playwrights Horizon season that year, there was a little panel and he asked us questions. And he used that expression.

When I start obsessing about something, it’s usually not because I think it’s a play—it’s just because it’s bothering me. There’s a long period of something stuck in my craw. I’m having imaginary arguments with other people about it, like it’s taking a rhetorical form, but it’s me and somebody else, or multiple other people. I don’t think I’ve ever really admitted this before. And then at a certain point I start to wonder if it’s a play and I start writing scenes. And I would say that’s happened plenty of times when a play didn’t emerge. There’s usually some point where I write some significant chunk or monologue or something where I realize there’s something here now to build the play around.

And with “Mary Jane”? What kinds of questions were nagging at you?

The first scene I wrote for “Mary Jane” isn’t in the play. Mary Jane is talking to an early-intervention specialist, and good-naturedly fighting the government bureaucracy. It wasn’t what the play needed. I felt embattled, not by the arguments in my head but in life. I imagined someone unflappably positive. And from that [came] this idea, that at the bottom of the canyon, something can start to shift, some other light can come in.

You have two plays on Broadway right now: “Mary Jane” and your adaptation of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” which is the second Ibsen play you have translated. [Herzog’s adaptation of “A Doll’s House” was nominated for six Tonys last year.] You’ve made Ibsen your own in so many ways. Has he seeped into your thinking?

I can only say I hope so. I can’t say right now that I know how that’s working, but what I have said, somewhere else, is my hope is that his courage around scale will be contagious for me. That I could write something bigger and more polemic and yet still me. That would be great, but that’s probably not how it’ll work. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how “Mary Jane” and “Enemy of the People”—they are both, you could argue, like, station dramas, like stations of the cross. Both characters go through a kind of trial that resembles the stations of the cross and are asked to kind of maintain their integrity.

I think that this is something common to many of your characters—people working the trap they are in, trying to maintain their dignity, but also offering and receiving aid. One of the things that interests me across your work are the intergenerational conversations. In this play, we have so many different women at so many different stages of life, sharing advice, some useful, some useless. Just giving some news of where they are or have been. And that news being a generous, generous thing.

I’m so struck by your phrase, offering news—that word “news” and its relationship to gospel. I love that. You’re right, everyone in “Mary Jane” is offering news, their own very personal tiny news. Where my mind goes in response to your question is that the characters in my earlier plays are all so kind of violently secular. And it’s where I come from, my family is extremely secular—“religion is the opiate of the masses” and all that. And there’s an opening up happening in this play to spiritual questions. I think a younger version of myself would’ve been horrified by that.

Why would that feel so risky?

[My world view] was just built on the foundation of Freud and Marx. In a way that it was actually very frightening even to start reading these religious thinkers, it felt like the betrayal of my heritage.

At the very least an admission that those tools weren’t enough. You needed other frameworks.

One of the first books I read on this quest was Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss.” He describes hearing a famous novelist on the radio discussing his father’s death, and the novelist said his father had a very painful, difficult dying, but he never resorted to the false comfort of religion. He stoically remained an atheist to his death. And Christian Wiman wondered at that. Why should we take so much pride in not changing? What is that? I remember reading that and realizing it was like a call to me to consider changing, just to consider letting the crucible I was in at that moment really change the way I thought.

I imagine you started to read intensively, because a spiritual vocabulary seems very available to you, especially for somebody not raised with it. What did you read?

I read Chris’s book and his poetry. Simone Weil. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, whom I met at MacDowell, pointed me to Dorothy Day, and I read “The Long Loneliness.” I really recommend it. Parts of it are a tiny bit boring, but it’s a really extraordinary document of a woman’s life. What Adrian said to me when she recommended it (and it gave me a lens to go through the memoir) was you might think you know who Dorothy Day is, but she was all of these different women. She was a bohemian, she was Eugene O’Neill’s lover. She lived through this earthquake when she was very young, which changed her thinking for the rest of her life. She had an abortion. All this before she became an activist. And that really influenced the structure of “Mary Jane”—people becoming different women before our eyes in the same play, and the sense of Mary Jane’s past and her future being separate from her present.

To go back to the Dorothy Day memoir, I can see it as a beautiful invitation to allow that change to happen. So much change happens to us or is imposed. What I think you’re describing is allowing for curiosity.

The reason the book is called “The Long Loneliness”—what a bleak title for the memoir written by that woman who gave so many people hope—is that she’s describing the spiritual life as a life of loneliness. It’s a longing for God that doesn’t feel requited most of the time, or returned in any way. And I think that my intellectually lazy idea of religious people was that there was a lack of curiosity and a desire for simple answers and solace. And not the idea that a spiritual life could be lonely and aching and a life that’s seeking truth as opposed to seeking comfort.

And holding questions whose answers may be in abeyance, or may come to us in disguise. I would like to see the play again, knowing you were reading this book. You yourself came back to this play after a number of years. What surprised you?

I had in my mind that it was written with incredible naturalistic precision, and that everything stacked up, and I didn’t feel that way coming back to it. I felt like it was more impressionistic and that there are things that should not be overly examined just from the standpoint of realism and time line. I worried a lot in the intervening years—I can’t claim to have an incredibly well-developed disability consciousness now, but I certainly didn’t when I wrote it. I spent a lot of time looking at the play, but also feeling like this was written from a particular moment in my life that I want to honor and not correct.

What do you mean—that it’s not handled sufficiently? It’s not an essay—

I think because it is about a mother and not about the child. I guess in the end, I think it’s O.K. A lot of people say to me, “You were smart not to put Alex onstage because it would be so distracting to have a disabled child onstage.” And I’m mystified by that. You would never put any two-and-a-half-year-old child onstage. That’s why Alex is not onstage, not because he’s disabled. I guess that that scares me, that perspective that he’s being kept away because there’s something we shouldn’t be looking at. Really, it’s just about that he’s a child and that the play is about his mother.

It is a play about the caregivers. I was struck when I was reading about actors that in such a small cast, so many of them are daughters of nurses.

Rachel and April.

And the actor who originated the role of Mary Jane—Carrie Coon.

Oh, you’re right.

I was thinking, Oh, of course. It’s a big profession. It’s a feminized profession. And, at the same time, it can feel hidden. I heard you invited caregivers for a special performance of the play. What did they say?

I was having a sort of out-of-body experience. I was sitting next to a mother of a twenty-year-old child with disabilities. She kept nodding. Every few lines, something would make her go, like, “Oh, I know that. I know that. I also know that.” What did the nurses say? Mostly, they said things like “It’s really important for us to see the parents’ side of this to really understand that experience.” Which was interesting. I didn’t want them to come and feel like they were there to be educated about something. I thought, It’s for you. You’re actually the people who know this—you already know it. But they were an extraordinary audience. They were very quiet. They didn’t laugh that much. I think a lot of the laughter in the audience comes from if they need a relief. Whereas those people were more inside of it.

My mother’s not a nurse. I didn’t grow up intimate with any nurses. I met them in the process of having a sick child. I don’t really know if this is as interesting as I think it is, but there was one time we were in the hospital. When you have a long hospital stay, a million things go wrong. My daughter was starting to have a bad G.I. problem. And the doctor at rounds said he was going to order a test for C. diff. I heard “C. diff” and got visibly alarmed because I’ve heard about that. And our main nurse just turned to me quietly and said, “It’s not C. diff.” And the doctor was, like, “She knows, but I’m just going to send the test.” And I was, like, “How do you know it’s not C. diff?” And she said, “The smell of the diapers.” And I remember thinking, If an alien came from outer space right now and watched this interaction, and you asked, “Who’s paid more? The one who has smelled so many diapers that she can diagnose it, or the guy who’s, like, “Send it to the lab?” what would they say?

I’m interested in these two plays at this moment—“Mary Jane” and the Ibsen. You’ve said that when you’re working with anything in translation you want to keep a bit of the flavor of the foreignness, right? A little bit of estrangement, from what it once was. And I’m holding this in my mind because you’re also, in a way, translating Mary Jane’s experience to us and trying to keep, as you say, the strangeness of the experience. To bring things closer but to angle it to have a little bit of that strangeness, a little bit of that space, so that we cannot appropriate it as our own experience.

I think that’s right. What you’re saying reminds me of—what is the German word?

I wouldn’t dare.

Isn’t there, in Tolstoy, too, in “War and Peace,” that description at the opera or at the theatre—I’m digging far back to a lecture from undergrad here—but the princess—what’s her name? Natasha—it’s from her perspective, and she’s so young, and maybe at the theatre for the first time. There’s a way that the prose gives that sense of estrangement. There has to be something creating a scrim. You said that when you were in the audience, you felt like, you said, not watching it but inside it—


I feel really conflicted about this, because that sounds right. That’s what’s right to me. I’d like you to be. But—I want the sense of it, the way my director Annie Kauffman always says: Mary Jane’s life is fine, but she’s just . . . she’s on Mars. So, everybody, come to Mars. And just accept that it’s Mars. ♦


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