In “Mary Page Marlowe,” a play by Tracy Letts that tracks seven decades in an Ohio woman’s life, the title character is many things: a baby, a girl, a wife, a lover, a mother, a divorcée, a retiree.
She’s also many people. In the Second Stage Theater production, which is now in previews and opens July 12, Mary Page is played by six actresses. Well, six actresses and one creepily lifelike baby doll.
On a recent weekday evening, rehearsal wrapped and the cast rushed into the green room to celebrate a couple of birthdays. Then the various Mary Pages shuffled back into the upstairs rehearsal space, balancing plates of cake, glasses of water and, in the case of Tatiana Maslany, who plays Mary Page at 27 and 36, half an avocado. “I missed lunch,” she said.
Ms. Maslany, who played at least 11 roles on the TV clone drama “Orphan Black,” and is finding it a pleasant change to share just one, was joined by Mia Sinclair Jenness, who plays Mary Page at 12; Emma Geer, who plays her at 19; Susan Pourfar, who plays her at 40 and 44; Kellie Overbey, the sole blond Mary, who plays her at 50; Blair Brown, who plays her at 59, 63 and 69; and the director, Lila Neugebauer. The creepy baby stayed in its crib. (There are other actors, too. And other characters. But these are the only Mary Pages.)
Barring occasional interruptions — Ms. Overbey briefly slipped out to manage a migraine, Ms. Pourfar excused herself to collect her actual baby, “not a doll,” she clarified — the women spoke about identity, change and the challenge of convincing an audience that women with different faces and voices and ways of moving through the world are really all the same. Wigs help. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Who Is Mary Page Marlowe?
MIA SINCLAIR JENNESS I think she’s resilient. Even as a 12-year-old, she goes through her fair share of heartbreaks and bad times, but that doesn’t necessarily make her a sad person.
EMMA GEER I’m playing her at 19. She’s strong, she’s powerful. She’s a dreamer and she has a very big heart.
TATIANA MASLANY: The big question of identity is a massive part of Mary Page in the two scenes in which we see me. It’s what happens at 30, what I certainly experienced — a question of who am I and what is my life?
SUSAN POURFAR In her 40s, she’s in this middle section of her life. She’s doing everything she has to do to survive, to put food on the table and to take care of her family. Kellie?
KELLIE OVERBEY I’m sorry, I’m having a bit of an episode right now. [Ms. Overbey, who was getting a migraine, excused herself to take a pain reliever.]
BLAIR BROWN Mine is the kindest period of Mary’s life. Kindest to herself, forgiving of all the mistakes. She’s been pretty hard on herself; the years have been hard. But she’s come through to a place — similar to when she was younger — of being open to experience and less judgmental.
Weaving Evolution Into Continuity
MASLANY: She has this real survival instinct and a real ——
GEER She doesn’t give up, ever.
BROWN She’s always trying. There’s a wit and humor that’s in her. We don’t think of women necessarily being that way. Which we are, of course, dazzlingly so. But not so much in plays.
LILA NEUGEBAUER I also feel in Mary Page a self-reliance. It’s in relationship to many of her strengths and also to some of her fault lines.
BROWN She’s constantly trying to look at the truth of situations when many people around her are not. She doesn’t get rewarded for that always.
[Ms. Overbey returned to the room, wearing an afghan as a cape.]
MASLANY: You look like a queen.
OVERBEY I feel like a queen. Mary Page makes me think about my own life. I’ll see people who knew me once upon a time and I’ll say, “Have I changed that much?” And they’ll always say, “No.” And I think, “But surely I have!”
POURFAR Kellie, do you remember Tracy saying, “A small change is still a change.” That really struck me. So I think you’ve changed. Since I’ve known you.
OVERBEY Yes. I would hope so.
GEER You have to choose to let yourself shift. Some things might happen naturally as you age and you learn, but I think to change is really brave.
OVERBEY Tracy has allowed for molting. We molt and we shift, but there’s something innate that remains. She’s deep and strong and courageous and lost.
Is She a Mystery to Others? To Herself?
GEER We talk about it all the time. I mean, my mom’s 57. She just told me last week, “The older I get, the less I know.” So I’m sort of expecting to not ever really know.
BROWN You know some more bits, I would say.
NEUGEBAUER The sets of questions that drew me into this play had to do with to what extent do we remain mysterious to the people who presume to love and know us best, and to what extent do we remain mysterious to ourselves?
BROWN How many times does Mary Page say, “I don’t know.”
JENNESS No one knows. You make these unconscious decisions and you don’t even know why.
BROWN But she keeps asking, that’s the thing, she asks her whole life. She asks all the time. She’s an ordinary woman, too. Tracy said she’s like the person standing behind you at the dry cleaners.
NEUGEBAUER It’s not a play about a queen.
GEER But she’s extraordinary in her own right. Because everyone is, right? When you gaze inside.
OVERBEY Tatiana has a line. What is it?
NEUGEBAUER “I am unexceptional.”
OVERBEY “I am unexceptional.” All I could think was how exceptional she seems in that moment.
Speaking With a Single Voice
NEUGEBAUER We’re collaborating with an incredible voice and dialect person, Gigi Buffington. In addition to conversations about Dayton, Ohio, and about where each of these excellent women live vocally, she has also led them through some incredible exercises. She invited them each to pick a scene that is not their Mary Page scene, and read it with each other.
BROWN For us, it’s about finding a space, like a plum in the back of your throat. And the sounds just kind of land in the front of your mouth.
GEER It’s not nasal.
BROWN It’s not that snarky New York kind of thing.
POURFAR It’s not that tight jaw. It’s much more open.
BROWN And not having a lot of consonants.
JENNESS You don’t pronounce your T’s.
BROWN You wouldn’t say “forgotten.” You’d say, “forgodden.”
Costumes and Wigs and More
POURFAR We’re all going to be wigged so the hair color will match. But the style will evolve.
JENNESS I’m either going to be wigged or I’m cutting my hair up to here. I don’t know!
POURFAR It’s going to look awesome!
JENNESS I don’t know!
BROWN Hair grows. Remember, it grows!
JENNESS That’s true. But I’m nervous. I mean, I really want to, but I also don’t know.
BROWN For women, it’s also when do you color your hair? Does she do some little highlights at some point? Is it for men? Is it for others? For work? Or for your own self.
POURFAR Hair and clothing conversations are not just about what’s happening in the time period, but what’s happening in Mary Page Marlowe’s internal life that might be reflected in how much effort she puts into the way she looks. It’s very exciting.
GEER I know I’m getting eyeliner. I’m in 1965 so I’m getting liner and we’re maybe going to do a bright red lip.
JENNESS That’s fun!
POURFAR Blair, I think you should go back to the liner.
BROWN Mary Page, with her last husband, they go to yard sales. So my clothes are really going to be fun.
Melding Six Actors Into One Character
NEUGEBAUER I don’t think a production of this play lives or dies based on verisimilitude. The whole theatrical premise of inviting six women to portray a character, we’re living in the complexity of that. There are some physical similarities between the women that have been cast. They are actually not of radically different heights or builds. At the same time, I will confess that what was most important to me were aspects of their internal life that I felt united them.
OVERBEY We’re still absorbing each other, I think.
BROWN We watch each other like hawks. I was looking today at the beauty of smiling and laughing.
MASLANY: That’s so funny, I was watching you smile today.
BROWN I was watching you!
MASLANY: It’s about watching and echoing.
OVERBEY And listening.
BROWN And getting to know.
JENNESS And learning.
NEUGEBAUER All of these women have graciously attended each other’s rehearsal. It’s a remarkable gift to benefit from the wisdom, life experience, point of view and intellect of six different women. And a doll. We’ve had to think about so many aspects of her life: Her mind, her soul, her body, her sexuality, her work ethic.
BROWN Her taste in clothes. The superficial to the profound.
OVERBEY The room feels safe because there are five more of me.
GEER Yeah, it’s like we’re all in it together.
BROWN We’re, like, breathing together.
MASLANY: There’s no competition. It has to be shared. It’s really unusual for women working together to have this. Usually you’re the only woman on the set or you’re the only woman in this slew of men. It’s amazing.