A Scalding “Marys Seacole”

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What is Marys Seacole about?

Racism. Sexism. Feminism. Misogynism. Colonialism. Narcissism.

And that’s just the first half (of an intermission-less evening).

None of these isms intrudes didactily in the least upon this engrossing, over-stuffed, deeply disturbing extravaganza of a play that the award-winning young playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has conjured here. Rapt engagement with her rapid-fire fantasia pretty much scatters all peripheral thoughts of theme and even meaning to the wind.

You really can’t ask for more from an hour or so in the theater (Lincoln Center Theater’s rooftop Claire Tow Theater, in this case).

Marys Seacole is indeed about plural Marys, the multiple manifestations of the main character; a Jamaican-American nurse in a contemporary American nursing home/hospital and her ancestor (or her fantasy), a real-life 19thCentury British-Jamaican “medical healer” named Mary Seacole (1805-1881),  a self-made businesswoman too, who became somewhat famous ministering to the wounded on the battlefields of the Crimean War (alongside Florence Nightangale) after setting up her own “British Hotel” behind the lines.

The juggling in these Marys’ mind(s), and in the playwrights’ narrative, of their twinned realities, bleeds feverishly into one another — fading in on a hospital room where the contemporary Mary Seacole handles the failing bodily functions and fluids of a white Alzheimer patient, whose distraught daughter and disengaged granddaughter are simply not up to the task;  fading out on the 21stCentury and on through the looking glass, to a non-linear but literarily old-fashioned autobiography of the 19thCentury Mary Seacole, delivered by Mary herself, initially from atop a pedestal as a statue come to life. The actress Quincy Tyler Bernstine gives  truly a towering performance as these Mary(s), blending equal parts overweening ego and selfless generosity and compassion, all mashed together within a barely suppressed, enflamed outrage at the ways in which history, so inherently racist, sexist and colonialist, has ignored Mary Seacole’s life and accomplishments (now, as well as then).

The direction is spectacular, by Lileana Blain-Cruz, including life-sized bodies falling from the sky and onto the Crimean battlefields with a Whomp! unlike any sound I have ever before heard emanate from a stage.

The cast is a wonder of conflicted characterizations (including the barely civil Ms. Nightingale herself), with the critical role of Mary’s harpy of a mother terrifyingly embodied by Karen Kandel. Her incessant verbal undermining of her own daughter shifts the play’s emphasis away from its many-hued isms to a final fade out on the over-aweing, deeply distressing feeling that all evil here, in the end, is the tragic biproduct of an unending cycle of self-loathing and maternal abuse revisited by mother upon daughter after daughter after daughter.

In the stunned silence that greeted the furiously chaotic final curtain, I googled Mary Seacole to see what she had died from. The answer seemed inevitable: “Apoplexy.”

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