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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

'night, Mother: 1983 Pulitzer Prize Play
in Exquisitely Performed Revival

Also see Bob's review of Jitney

'night Mother
Laura Warfield and Mikaela Kafka
Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play 'night, Mother is performed in real time without intermission. The setting is a house on a country road owned by Thelma Cates, a sixtyish widow. Thelma lives here with her fortyish daughter, Jessie. The coldness in their relationship could bring snow in summer. Yet, after being deserted by her husband, Jessie had moved in with her mother. She never leaves the house. Tonight may well be the happiest one that the profoundly neurotic Jessie has had for a very, very long time. She is calm, certain and in control. Clearly, this is an unusual mindset for a woman who finds existence too painful to endure.

The ticking clock which is visible throughout tells us that it is 8:15 pm (the time is the same on both sides of the footlights). Jessie gets Mama to tell her the location of her late father's pistol. She reveals that she has found bullets for it. She then tells Mama that she is going to commit suicide in a couple of hours, and that, if Mama tries to get anyone to intercede, she will immediately shoot herself. Jessie has made various arrangements to make it easier for her mother to carry on without her, and is only delaying her escape until she can instruct her Mama about them, as well as instructing her on how to perform household tasks. The pair bicker about their past and about those who are or have been closest to them. Mama tries to talk Jessie out of her intention, ultimately making a physical effort. As it is clear that suicide is the way to go to free herself from her misery, it is inevitable that Jessie will carry out her intention. By 9:45 pm, it is all over.

There can be no doubt but that Marsha Norman has written a play with a smooth, poetic flow of language. The emotionally isolated Jessie is the daughter of selfish, emotionally isolated parents. When Jessie asks Mama, "What did Dad say to you the night he died?," Mama responds, "It was his last chance not to say anything to me, and he took advantage of it." Crucial to the regard in which 'night, Mother is held, is Mason's use of the dialogue between her protagonists to smoothly and naturalistically present full portraits of the lives and characteristics of Jessie and Mama and their significant others, and to give us a sympathetic understanding of the whys and wherefore of Jessie's suicide.

Despite her considerable accomplishment and skill, it is hubris for Norman to try to demonstrate that a difficult family history alone can explain extreme and profound mental illness. Almost by definition, families are dysfunctional. It is central to all fiction that writers illuminate the life experience causes for behavior. However, the profound depression on view here is relatively rare. Neurochemicals, hormonal imbalances, dysthymias, epilepsy, or whatever else known or yet undiscovered, may be involved. (When Mama learned that Jessie had epilepsy, she inexplicably kept it a secret from her and the family.) A cold, selfish mother does not explain Jessie's need to commit suicide as 'night, Mother implicitly represents. While Norman's convincing argument for Jessie's unbearable pain quiets the tendency to be angry at such a selfish act, it cannot entirely hold at bay the thought that if Jessie must commit suicide, she should just get on with it and stop wasting our time. The solid case that Norman makes for her suicide, its inevitability, and that prominently displayed clock (part of Norman's design for the play and its set) all play into this feeling. Norman's writing accomplishes the difficult feat of making it seem that a person who is totally incapable of finding a way to cope with being alive can find calm, assurance and maturity by making a coolly rational decision to take her own life. However, intellectually, this is very hard to accept.

Under the sensitive direction of Thom Molyneaux, two excellent actresses make the strongest possible case for 'night, Mother. Mikaela Kafka manages to create tension by projecting an undercurrent of tight control beneath the serenity with which Jessie takes control over her own life. Laura Warfield vocally projects the nervous tension of a determinedly iron-willed Thelma (Mama) behind her cover of physical frailty. Both Kafka and Warfield play beautifully off one another, convincing us that they have been jousting with each other for a very long time. Their moments of sharp conflict rise generically from the personas which they establish from the beginning. Furthermore, Molyneaux keeps the pace steady and deploys his actors about the stage in a manner which keeps the proceedings visually active.

On the affirmative side, 'night, Mother is a gracefully written play which always holds one's interest and contains much food for thought. It is certainly provocative. It is being beautifully performed in tandem by two fine actresses who are sensitive to the play and its rhythms, and to each another.

'night, Mother continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Sun. 3 pm) through February 26 at the Garage Theatre Group, Becton Theatre, on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1000 River Road, Teaneck, New Jersey 07670. Box Office: 201-569-7710; online: www.GarageTheatre.org.

'night, Mother by Marsha Norman; directed by Thom Molyneaux

Cast
Jessie Cates.........................Mikaela Kafka
Thelma Cates (Mama)..........Laura Warfield


Photo: Justin Bias


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- Bob Rendell



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