Photo from production. Credit: Matthew Murphy

I was watching a harrowing scene in “Mary Jane,” the truly excellent Broadway play starring Rachel McAdams, when my jaw dropped. A character has to call 911 for help and the operator asks for an address. After much confusion, it comes out: 87-10 34th Ave, Apt. 2F. 

Not only is that a block away from where I live, the address is undeniably Jackson Heights, Queens, and coming toward the end of Act 1, it made me see anew the circumstances of the single mother contending with raising a severely ill child and the role of the community that sustains her.

What Mary Jane’s address looks like in real life. Credit: S. Mitra Kalita

The one-bedroom apartment depicted in the play is too small for Mary Jane and her son. She gives him the bedroom and pulls out the couch every night to make her bed. Around them swirl the mundane (unclogging a kitchen sink, talk of sweet tomatoes from a friend’s garden) and the dire (a fever spiking, sudden seizures, the loss of a job and, potentially, insurance). Her most dependable nurse, Sherry, is played by April Matthis, who we have had the honor of chronicling here at Epicenter from her as an actor during Covid to starring in “Help” at the Shed and then “The Piano Lesson” on Broadway. 

The set of “Mary Jane” is noteworthy because the cozy Queens apartment of the first act swaps for a sterile hospital setting in Act 2. While , I thought it perfectly illustrated the limbo of caregiving: There’s the land of the sick, and then there’s everything else. Home looms large—it’s the destination—but remains so far from reach.

Photo from production. Credit: Matthew Murphy

Mary Jane’s discovery of community through her son’s illness is heartwarming, although, like so many works with multiracial casts and themes lately, there’s a loneliness that pervades her experience as a white woman. (I found echoes in “Appropriate,” starring Sarah Paulson.) This is why the Jackson Heights setting is so intriguing. As a resident of one of the most diverse neighborhoods on the planet for more than 20 years, I find the ties of community to be intrinsic here, even as people come and go. I like to think of our neighborhood as one that teaches white families who are not necessarily anchored in identity (think religion or sexual identity) how to be a part of a collective, even as it feels foreign and different and uncomfortable, maybe even to fight for something bigger than themselves.

Photo from production. Credit: Matthew Murphy

During one of the most poignant moments in the play, Mary Jane strikes up a conversation with an Orthodox Jewish woman named Chaya in the hospital. Chaya has seven (!) children and people from her faith come in and out of the hospital all day long. It’s a striking contrast to Mary Jane, whose husband has left; she goes it alone except for a fleet of rotating caregivers and the occasional sympathetic passerby. Chaya tells her: “My community makes things easier in certain ways… People feel a responsibility toward each other. Now your situation… it’s okay for me to say this?” Mary Jane assures her to go ahead. “It wouldn’t happen. … You wouldn’t be so alone.”

Indeed, I hope Mary Jane’s choice of living in Jackson Heights wasn’t just driven by finding an affordable rental—but to feel less alone. 

“Mary Jane” has been extended and is playing till June 30. .

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched ż, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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