April 17, 2016

“It’s pretty fragile.” Those words, spoken by the title character in “Mary Page Marlowe,” the exquisite new play by Tracy Letts having its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater here, refer to a quilt in need of some delicate dry cleaning. But they resonate with many meanings in Mr. Letts’s haunting, elliptical drama about the evolutions, reversals and resurrections in a woman’s life. A quilt is a clever symbol for the unusual structure of the play itself. As he charts the course of Mary Page’s life, Mr. Letts, a Tony-winning actor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” hopscotches back and forth through time. Six actors portray the title character as she moves from age 12 to 69. Just as a family quilt is assembled piecemeal over time, “Mary Page Marlowe” is stitched together haphazardly as the story unfolds, leaving us to fill in the gaps and to try to ferret out connections that Mr. Letts intends us to infer. Some may find the play’s form frustrating; I found it beautiful and affecting, like flipping through a friend’s photo album in no particular order, finding some faces familiar, others unexpected. And then you come upon someone entirely unknown — who obviously meant much to your friend — and you realize, with a pang of sadness, that your knowledge of even those closest to you will always be fragmentary and incomplete. (The nonlinear progression, which leaves the play with an abrupt ending, also reminded me of a quote from another Mary, Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.”)