Iconic is the word to describe 'night, Mother, due to the focus on the mother-daughter dynamic. 'night, Mother will also stand to be a great American classic due to its viability and complex structure. Marsha Norman's drama premiered on Broadway in 1983, featuring Anne Pitoniak and Kathy Bates, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Twenty-one years later, it is being revived on Broadway with Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is presenting their own rendition of 'night, Mother, coinciding with the Broadway revival. Veteran player Barbara Bradshaw and Dramaworks' managing chief Nanique Gheridian prove once again that we don't have to travel the road north when we have excellent performances right here in our own backyard.
The play opens in the home of Thelma Cates (Bradshaw). Her daughter Jessie (Gheridian) prepares for the day by handling the chores. Jesse lives with her mother, since she separated from her husband and son. On today's docket: clean the attic, fix the laundry, spend quality time with mother, find father's gun, commit suicide. Not in that particular order, but the idea is already set in motion.
Jessie tells Thelma that she is going to end her life after she gives her mother a manicure. At first, Thelma doesn't believe Jessie. But when she hears the seriousness in Jessie's tone, Thelma's motherly instinct kicks in and she tries to talk some sense into her baby girl. Just like the steps of death, Thelma goes through all the motions: denial, trading, anger, sadness and, finally, acceptance.
Jessie, on the other hand, is going through an acceptance of her own. Mahalia Jackson's "Troubles of the World" is the theme of the day as Jessie is determined and set to end her life. Through depression and epilepsy, Jessie is resigned to the fact that she is not of this life, and she is ready to make it stop. Before she goes, she wants to make her mother cope by preparing Thelma not for the fallout, but for the chores that will need to be done when Jessie is gone.
Norman's text is seared with poignancy, tension and emotion. With a two-person play, the text has to be ripe with words that actors can use to keep the audience's attention. Norman delves deep into the mother-daughter dynamic by giving us dialogue that banters back and forth like a ping pong game that doesn't stop until the final blow is given. Whether or not we know the outcome, the object is for the actor playing Thelma to convince us that life is worth living.
'night, Mother is a play full of tactics and beats. Those fall mostly on the shoulders of the actor who plays Thelma, as she tries to convince her daughter not to take her life. Barbara Bradshaw rides those beats like a skilled equestrian on a thoroughbred. Her Thelma is a caring mother who tries to save her daughter. She tries every trick in the book: doting on Jessie, scolding Jessie, even screaming at her. Bradshaw is a rainbow of emotions making us pity Thelma, while also relating to her situation.
On the flipside, Nanique Gheridian is a calculating force as Jessie. She shows the resonance without showing the resignation. She controls every nuance, keeping the explosions to a minimum - proof that actors can give good presentations without yelling every line.
The seamless direction by William Hayes leaves the players to their own devices, letting them find their own chemistry. Bradshaw and Gheridian's energies bounce off each other like tennis balls. The players never slow down, keeping the audience involved until the finish.
It helps that the set is balanced as well. Michael Amico has created a rural Southern home filled with down-to-earth charm and hospitality. Bernadette Simon's lighting sets a mood filled with ease and tension to blend in with the set.
Palm Beach Dramaworks' version of 'night, Mother is raw and guttural, touching and distressing, heartfelt and disturbing. This is the way plays were meant to be made. While celebrating its fourth season, there is no doubt that Dramaworks will be in award contention again with 'night, Mother. I hope you can make it out to see it. The fine portrayals alone will be worth the trip.
'night, Mother concludes December 5th at their studio theatre, 322 Banyan Blvd., in West Palm Beach. For tickets, please call (561) 514-4042.
PALM BEACH DRAMAWORKS - 'night, Mother
Starring Barbara Bradshaw and Nanique Gheridian
Scenic Design: Michael Amico
Directed by William Hayes
See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.
-- Kevin Johnson