When The Acting Hits Close To Home: 'Peace for Mary Frances'
In the New Group's intense world-premiere drama Peace for Mary Frances, Obie winner J. Smith-Cameron portrays Alice, a middle-aged mom tending to the family's dying 90-year-old matriarch (Lois Smith). It's a role Smith-Cameron recently played off-stage, as well: "My mom just passed away last summer," she says. "I'm still processing that loss -- and I will for the rest of my life."
Despite that rawness, Smith-Cameron decided that performing in the show -- penned by Brooklyn College playwriting student Lily Thorne and directed by Lila Neugebauer -- might prove healing. "When I first read the play I thought, oh, it's a walk straight into the vortex of grief!" she says. "But it's actually a full cycle. You go all the way around it. It's a kind of a tonic as well as an immersion of the recent loss. It felt like a documentary but also like a poem."
A familiar face from stage and screen projects, including works by her husband, Oscar-winning writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, Smith-Cameron uses the word "cathartic" several times while describing her Peace for Mary Frances journey. "It's like having an ongoing heart-to-heart or a therapy session where you're stirring everything up," she says.
The play not only explores the grief of losing a parent, but the family dynamics of dealing with that transition. Unfortunately, Mary Frances' dysfunctional clan is not handling it well. Long-standing rivalries, especially between Alice and her sister Fanny (Johanna Day), propel the narrative as three generations try to navigate the intricacies of hospice care such as regulating oxygen, delivering painkillers and coping with medication side effects. "I get to articulate all the sides of what this experience is like," Smith-Cameron says.