The assignment that Marsha Norman, the playwright, set for herself was straightforward enough: A woman (Jessie) tells her mother (Thelma) that she is going to shoot herself that evening, and there's nothing that her mother can do about it. What happens then?
What happens is an hour and 40 minute dialogue (no intermission). There is some suspense as to whether Jessie will actually carry out the suicide or whether Thelma can talk her out of it, but it is muffled by the filler material used by Ms. Norman to pad this out into a full-length play. It's about half an hour too long. The last 20 minutes are effective, I admit. I just wish the rest of the writing were as tight.
We gradually learn about Jessie's divorce, her estranged criminal son, and her epilepsy. We learn a little about Thelma's late husband and about her other child, Dawson, and his wife. The religious implications of suicide are dispensed with in 30 seconds. But then there are conversations about Agnes, an unimportant character, and there are discussions about pots and pans, cleaning out the refrigerator, and the best way to make cocoa. There are some attempts at humor that are out of place. Would a mother whose daughter is about to kill herself really say that she doesn't want to go live at her son's house after the daughter is dead because they only have Sanka?
The main question is why does Jessie feel the need to end her life, and despite all the talk, I'm not sure I know for sure. There are several possible reasons. She apparently has anhedonia, the inability to find any pleasure in anything (I only know the word because it was Woody Allen's original title for Annie Hall). And she's probably coming out of a bad depressive episodemany people who kill themselves do not do it when they are very depressed, but when they are getting better, because they don't want to go through something like that again.
Or maybe her epilepsy has a lot to do with it. Ms. Norman knows what she's talking about with epilepsy drugs, but it probably doesn't register with most of the audience. Jessie mentions that her phenobarb levels are good now, and that her gum swelling and double vision are getting better. These are side-effects of Dilantin, a drug commonly used to prevent seizures. So she has apparently stopped the Dilantin and switched to phenobarbital, another common drug for epilepsy, but epilepsy is not that easily controlled. The possibility of a seizure occurring at any time really restricts a person's independence. She doesn't want to drive because she might hurt someone. She barely can go out of the house. What kind of a life is that.
In any case, Jessie's tired of living. I will give credit to Marsha Norman for one lovely symbol: Living, Jessie says, is like being on a bus. Most people ride the bus to the end of the line. But if the scenery isn't changing, and the destination is going to be the same whether you stay on the bus or get off earlier, why not just call for a stop when you want to? Jessie has decided to get off. Is her choice selfish, compassionate, inevitable, rational, desperate, misguided, existential, or all of the above?
This is another point where I wasn't crazy about the play, but was in awe of the acting. Thelma is the role of a lifetime. No wonder Oprah is rumored to be doing it soon on Broadway. (It's a guaranteed Tony nomination, and a likely win.) But I can't imagine anyone doing it much better than our local treasure, Ninette Mordaunt. Everything she does as Thelma is well-observed and natural, nothing actressy. She was as shattered at the end of the play as many of the audience members were.
Lori Stewart as Jessie is unnerving in her calmness. This is the way the role should be played. There are no more slings and arrows to pierce her, and her sea of troubles has smoothed out into a tranquil reflecting pool. Of course, credit should also go to director Michael Miller for eliciting such excellent performances from Ninette and Lori.
The set by Tish Miller and props by Claudia Mathis are perfect. The functioning clock on the wall facing the audience might be a miscalculation, though. It shows you that the play takes place in real time. But I couldn't help counting how many minutes of my own life were ticking away while waiting for this play to end. (At the very least, reset the clock at the Sunday matinee from 2:00 to 8:00, so that the line "It isn't even 10 o'clock yet" makes sense.)
I recommend this show for the wonderful acting. The play itself, not so much. But I know I'm in the minority with this opinion.
'night, Mother, a play by Marsha Norman, is being presented at the Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque through June 29, 2014. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.auxdog.com or 505-254-7716.