Rachel McAdams Is So Good At Playing Mothers

If you’re a Pal-level subscriber at Defector, you get access to a premium weekday newsletter called The Cipher, which has a recap of the blog day, links to other sites, and extra takes and bits from staffers. You can change your newsletter preferences or upgrade your subscription at the My Account page. Here, from the newsletter archives, is a piece about Mary Jane, which finishes its Broadway run this weekend.

Last night, I saw the play Mary Jane on Broadway. Its subject matter—Rachel McAdams playing a single mom whose young son struggles with very major health issues—is realistically intense enough that I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it’s a deft piece of writing (with some genius set design) that absolutely nails the perfect tone for its plot: neither sappy nor sadistic, neither brutally depressing nor uncannily effervescent. It’s just … life. And, of course, it wouldn’t function on stage without McAdams, who gives a revelatory, non-stop performance that escapes all possible cliches in order to arrive at something deeply human.

McAdams is very likable but not the first name that comes to mind when I think “great actress.” Her films are pretty scattershot—some tripe, some pleasantness, some brilliance. But seeing her here, in combination with her last role, I felt like I understood her skill better than ever before. The 2023 film version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret caught me by delightful surprise, and McAdams shines there as an uprooted mother working through an identity crisis that subtly mirrors the confusion of her daughter’s puberty. Mary Jane is a much more serious work, but here, she takes a character that’s focused on just one thing through the runtime and seamlessly blends pieces of her past into that overarching motivation—a hippie education, a particularly miserable first year with her kid, a long history of both kindnesses and disservices done to her as she’s tried to raise this boy. If acting is about conjuring empathy in a room of strangers, McAdams couldn’t have done any better. Mary Jane, as she plays her, is a fully formed person who felt as real as anyone sitting in my row.

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Show business is ageist and sexist, so it’s a fraught thing to say that an actress should or even can play mothers. There’s a whole 30 Rock bit where Jenna refuses to believe she could be cast as a mother instead of a daughter on Gossip Girl. But I’d like to think that the possibilities for motherhood in media are expanding beyond mere moral support or nagging antagonism. Both Margaret and Mary Jane are proof of this, and if McAdams wanted to devote this next phase of her career exclusively to exploring motherhood, I’d eagerly watch her every time.


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