'Peace for Mary Frances': Turgid family drama

(Left to right:) Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron in Lily Thorne’s “Peace for Mary Frances,” through July 17 at the Pershing Sqaure Signature Center in Manhattan.

Lily Thorne  is a very lucky first-time playwright: Her professional debut, Peace for Mary Frances, is directed by Lila Neugebauer, one of the much-in-demand young directors in New York, and it stars revered actor Lois Smith.

(Let us pause here momentarily to shout, “Brava! Brava! Brava!” to three powerful old ladies currently owning stages in New York: Glenda Jackson in Three Tall Women is 82, Diana Rigg in My Fair Lady will be 80 next month, and Lois Smith playing Mary Frances is 87.)

I learned three things from Thorne’s turgid family drama:

  • extreme realism (whereby stage life looks and sounds even drearier than the quotidian) has its limits;
  • cheap laughs are not cost-effective (“You should quit smoking.” “OK, Ma, after you die.”);
  • a luminous cast cannot save a play that lacks both structure and language, even if that cast includes not only Lois Smith, but also the excellent Johanna Day  — whose terrific performance in Sweat showed how good she can be with gritty realism — and J Smith-Cameron.

The plot (so to speak) circles around Mary Frances, who who is 90. She’s sick and she’s ready to die. We meet four generations of her family, all women, plus Eddie (Paul Lazar), an emotionally stunted lawyer who is no help to his overwrought sisters, their daughters, or their children.

Her family caretakers are a sorry bunch: Fanny (Day) is a violent recovering heroin addict whose own daughter is a fugitive who won’t bring her baby to meet her mother, even for money. The other daughter, the beleaguered Alice (Smith-Cameron), is an astrologer whose grown daughters — one a TV actor, the other a wife and mother of two — mainly weep, claim martyrdom, blame each other, and bicker about who’s done more for Mom. The family dynamics depend on money; we learn that each of the adult children is paid by the week by their mother to look after her. It’s all pretty ugly.

The bi-level set rules the play: Characters go upstairs and downstairs, in one door and out another, until finally, finally Mary Frances dies, and the play finally, finally ends.

Through June 17. The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center,  480 W. 42nd Strett, New York. Tickets: $30-125. Information: 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org.