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Mosaic Theater’s ‘Marys Seacole’ is an ode to mothers of all stripes

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s historically inspired meditation on caregiving draws on the autobiography of a British Jamaican nurse.

Kim Bey, front, as Mary Seacole and Tina Fabrique as Duppy Mary, in Mosaic Theater's production of “Marys Seacole,” at Atlas Performing Arts Center through May 29. (Margot Schulman)

A student nurse practicing triage. A nanny scrolling through cellphone photos of her daughter, far away. A 19th-century field hospital, buffeted by explosions and flame-colored smoke.

These and other images jostle and refract in Mosaic Theater Company’s diligent, well-acted production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s historically inspired “Marys Seacole,” directed by Eric Ruffin. Partly structured as theme-and-variation scenes interlaced with fever-dream echoes, the play is longer on meaning than on forward momentum. But audiences willing to watch thoughtfully, in motif-spotting mode, will encounter a substantive meditation on caregiving and mothering, and how those sometimes overlapping activities affect the definition of the self.

The play draws on the autobiography of a fascinating historical figure: Mary Seacole, a British Jamaican nurse and entrepreneur who, in the 1850s, tended to the sick and wounded on the front lines of the Crimean War. In addition to chronicling episodes from this brave, venturesome life, Drury depicts modern-day nurses, mothers and other caregivers, sometimes imagining them as time-traveling avatars of Seacole herself — hence the plural of the title.

The conceptual montage unfurls on Emily Lotz’s largely abstract set, often suffused with Mona Kasra’s projections — historical photos, battlefield conflagrations and more. As Mary (played by Kim Bey) narrates or enacts episodes from her life, or transforms into contemporary caregivers, other members of the all-female cast round out the nows and thens (with help from Moyenda Kulemeka’s vivid costumes and wigs). Sometimes, too, the supporting actors move or speak in stylized fashion as a kind of chorus. Then there’s Duppy Mary (Broadway’s Tina Fabrique, suitably intense), a now-terse, now-incantatory black-clad figure who at least sometimes represents Mary’s mother.

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Bey is a charismatic and engaging Mary — poised, self-aware and retrospectively wry about the difficulties she has encountered, such as being rejected as a candidate for Florence Nightingale’s Crimean War nursing team. A barbed conversation between a calm Mary and a snitty Nightingale (Tonya Beckman) on the front lines is one of the play’s bits of comic relief.

Other moments also register vividly: Curled up in a chair beside a nursing home bed, Beckman aces the forced cheerfulness of a woman visiting her ailing elderly parent (a spot-on Claire Schoonover). Amanda Morris Hunt is persuasive as a confident nanny who speaks to a bone-weary young mother (Megan Graves, excellent) in a park. The play’s outside-of-time segues and vistas can also be pleasantly spooky.

Drury’s other best-known plays, the drama sometimes called (for short) “We Are Proud to Present … ” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview,” also employed daring strategies to make incisive social points, but in those works, the playwright used more initial story to seduce us into her ingenious designs. Without a comparable narrative pull, “Marys Seacole” demands more patience. It also models that virtue — in its portrait of Seacole and others whose dedication, sacrifice and nurturing cannot get too much respect.

Marys Seacole, by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Eric Ruffin; lighting design, John D. Alexander; sound, Cresent Haynes; props, Deb Thomas; intimacy and fight consultant, Sierra Young. About 100 minutes. $20-$68. Through May 29 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-6764. mosaictheater.org.

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