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Looking Back at 'Dead Shot Mary'

This one-woman show explores the legacy of one of the first female NYPD detectives.

Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

She begins as a woman in a white dress and hat, with purple gloves, a delicate purse and a gun. Mary Shanley, a decorated career policewoman in the NYPD in the 1930s, picked up the nickname "Dead Shot Mary" in the press, which plastered her all over the front page with stories of her legendary arrests and then promptly forgot about her not long after. The extraordinary pioneer for women in the workforce simply faded out of memory.

So how would Mary grapple with her legacy, which included not only foiling pickpockets and making a name for female detectives but also alcoholism, insecurity and a complicated relationship with religion? That is the springboard for Robert K. Benson's Dead Shot Mary, a one-woman play directed by Stephen Kaliski in which Mary Shanley shares how she wants to remember her story.

The piece, which alternates between imagined conversations with other people or her dog and direct address to the audience, effortlessly moves us through Mary's life without any conscious sense of time passing. The set features an artistic picture frame background and newspaper photos of the infamous Shanley behind a more traditional New York City apartment setting, melding 1930s realism with a more abstract composition. While the play feels unstructured at first, the story slowly knits together until we find ourselves waiting with bated breath to find out how it ends.

That effect is the result of an extraordinary performance by Rachel McPhee, whose remarkable vulnerability onstage excuses every one of Mary's imperfections. At first in her recital, Mary exhibits some defensiveness about why she wanted to be a cop, citing better wages and other flippant excuses, but that quickly peels away as we learn how she came to be the way she is. And while there are a few segments about her childhood, the play resists the impulse to explain away why Mary became Mary with some sort of clever anecdote.

Instead, we learn all about her, seeing the side of Dead Shot Mary only her dog and occasionally her priest get to see. We watch her struggle with a complicated relationship to femininity—her work often requires her to go undercover as a respectable lady, forgoing the police uniform for a fashionable hat and gloves in order to do her job. We watch her mingled pride and embarrassment about how she is treated in the press, and the lack of respect she receives from fellow cops because of it. We discover with her a passion for music that spans from the church organ to jazz, finding the beauty and truth within everyday life through song and dance.

Whether it is a chance encounter with fellow woman in the public eye Grace Kelly, an enthusiastic listening and reenactment of a boxing match heard on the radio or a drunken escapade turned disaster, McPhee's Mary Shanley is as complex as she is deeply relatable. And even if you remain iffy on the accent, Mary's history as a New York Irishwoman who chose an unconventional career over a husband and children still rings true today.

Very few people get to choose how they will be remembered. We can only hope that Mary Shanley would be proud of the work Robert K. Benson has done in celebrating her story.

Dead Shot Mary plays at the Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios through October 15.

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