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STAGE REVIEWS : One Play’s Too Heavy, Another’s a Souffle : ‘Miss Mary’ Is Billed as a ‘Dramedy,’ but Sometimes Its Comedic Moments Fall Under the Weight of Its Drama

Muriel Resnik Jackson’s “Miss Mary,” in its world premiere at Illusion’s New View Theatre in Fullerton, opens deceptively on a spry, optimistic high.

Mary’s sister and two daughters flit through her Manhattan apartment, chatting about the upcoming trip Mary and her husband are taking to Egypt. Romantic cruises on the Nile, a moonlit stroll to the pyramids.

As they conjure images, Mary arrives with a smashing red dress she just bought. Take a look at this, girls. See, I may be getting up in years, but I haven’t lost it. She parades around the room, showing off, then the phone rings. Oh, what a nuisance.

The swirl of good vibes ends abruptly as she learns there’s been an accident. Her husband is in the hospital, on life support. Mary breaks down. And that’s only the start of her troubles.

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For the next 3 months, Mary agonizes over the decision to take him off the respirator. Then, after he’s dead, she injures herself in a fall and loses most of her independence. Six months later, she’s paralyzed by depression. Another 6 months and she’s begging her daughter to help with her suicide. Six months after that, she’s senile, unable even to recognize her children.

Wow. Even though Jackson describes the play as a “dramedy,” there’s not much funny business here. “Miss Mary” is, basically, a tragedy with a few awkward laughs weaved in to ease the otherwise unremitting pain. Jackson, an author most familiar with comedy (she is best known for her 1964 Broadway success, the helium-filled “Any Wednesday”), attempts to meld the two, but it doesn’t work.

Given the weighty subject matter, most of the humor seems forced, even out of place. And the few times it does click--the wisecracks from Mary’s sexually liberated sister Emily (Ruth Cameron), for example--it tends to trivialize the play’s serious intent. Director Beverly Arrowsmith is asked to keep everything balanced, a more than daunting job.

Jackson should be praised, however, for trying to tackle issues that seem to defy easy solutions. Through Mary, we are expected to examine a happy life turned upside down: How can we cope with such cruel fate?

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And through her family’s reactions, especially the daughters’, we must consider what our obligations should be when a loved one becomes helpless, when the child becomes the parent. What are the ethical limits of our responsibilities? How much of ourselves should we sacrifice?

But “Miss Mary’s” biggest flaw--even more than its uneven tone--is that in trying to do so much, it leaves the philosophical landscape crowded, the matters unresolved. The problem is especially apparent when Resnik delves into the question of euthanasia.

There is charged desperation when Elaine Barnard, as Mary, pleads with daughter Katherine (Carla Jones) to give her a lethal dose of sleeping pills, but the writing seems incomplete, inauthentic. And manipulative, not to mention confusing: Are we supposed to feel anger when Katherine takes Mary to the edge but then refuses her? Or is this last-second denial a courageous act?

Jackson is better at getting us to understand her characters. Although Mary’s decline seems sudden (Barnard gives her so much vitality in that first scene, it’s hard imagining that her fall could be so quick), we do pick up on her dependence on her husband and on the life they shared. We also have a pretty good idea of Mary’s pride and sensitivity.

There’s yuppie self-absorption in both Katherine and the other daughter, Margaret (Laura Hoffman) that exemplifies a certain type of modern woman. Margaret has her own family and doesn’t want it disturbed; Katherine is a professional who only has so much time to give, and it’s ironic when the care of Mary falls to her.

The ending is also ironic, and more than a bit chilling. The life now left to both Mary and Katherine is humiliating and undignified. Would it have been better if Katherine had given her the pills? “Miss Mary” doesn’t have the breadth to say, but at least it asks the question.

‘MISS MARY’

An Illusion’s New View Theatre world premiere of Muriel Resnik Jackson’s play. Directed by Beverly Arrowsmith. With Elaine Barnard, Ruth Cameron, Carla Jones and Laura Hoffman. Set by Jeffrey D. Ault and Patrick Brambila. Lights by Paul Davis and Lee Head. Plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. through March 19 at 3030 Brea Blvd., Fullerton. Tickets: $7 to $10. (714) 990-9605.

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