There are plenty of plays that feature family members having it out in long discussions where secrets are aired, truths are revealed, and questions are answered. 'Night, Mother is something different: a play where one character tries to convince another that her ultimate question can never be answered.
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In this case, that question is: why? Why does Jessie, one quiet evening, calmly tell her mother that she intends to take her own life before night's end?
Marsha Norman's script won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it now feels prescient — if potentially problematic — in its intimate treatment of suicide. Rather than a mere plot device, here Jessie's plan to put a gun to her own head essentially is the plot. The discussion between the two women, with a tone ranging from relaxed to frantic, is one that survivors might have on endless loop in their own heads.
Or not. If you're going to see Dark & Stormy's strong new production of the play, it's important to know what you're getting into. If you've had a close experience with suicide, the play's portrayal of a woman on the verge of ending her life may be distressing or it may be cathartic, but the central fact of the play is impossible to avoid.
Sara Marsh plays Jessie, a woman who's no longer young but far from old. She's divorced, with a law-breaking son who's off on the lam somewhere. She's living with her widowed mother Thelma (Sally Wingert) in a rural house that Jessie has carefully prepared for Thelma to manage on her own. Jessie has decided to share her plans to prepare her mother, and in a vain attempt to keep Thelma from blaming herself.
Wingert, a consummate actor drawn to challenging roles, is heartbreakingly angry and confused as Thelma: a woman who's had her share of travails but won't relinquish her spark of life. Opposite Wingert, Marsh conveys an eerily upbeat resolution in the face of overwhelming sadness, a sort of reverse eclipse of the heart.
Under the direction of Hayley Finn, the actors keep the mood tense without becoming histrionic. Marsh designed the set, with furniture suspended by wires to convey a sense of surreal drifting. Everything that Thelma thought she could rely on, from her daughter to the electric oven, seems poised to float away.
That mirrors a sense of floating in the dialogue. The discussion between Jessie and Thelma moves forward, cycling through a range of topics and emotions, but keeps coming back to the irreducible fact of Jessie's intentions. Only as the play approaches its conclusion do things start to seem tidy, with the play's title dropping like a shoe.
It's no wonder the play has been lauded, but to fully appreciate it you may need to set aside the question of how often exchanges like this actually occur, and how often they end the way this one does. 'Night, Mother is a precarious fiction, an unsettling and unforgettable fever dream.