Donna Weinsting reaches amazing new personal heights of drama as the eponymous "Mother." In a broadcast interview she remarked, rather cleverly, that Marsha Norman's play shows how mother and daughter finally come to see one another as individuals for the very first time. Each pleads her case for life or death in a country home set with an expressionistic sense of dread. And, thanks to director Gary F. Bell, they also present what amounts to a tense hostage drama, where one woman is reduced to begging for the life of the other, whenever humor and hope wear thin.
How things came to this pass is told in the seemingly insignificant rituals and busywork that governs their lives together, and off-handed comments along the way. In her first moments on stage, Jessie puts an instant chill in the air with a simple request for towels or a drop cloth, usually keeping her eyes fixed on the mortal horizon, fascinating and enigmatic; while Ms. Weinsting childishly forages for snack cakes to satisfy her unquenchable sweet tooth, completely unaware of what's going on in her own daughter's mind. Jessie's relentlessly clinical drive might well have made her a gifted scientist, under better circumstances. But, spiritually illiterate and reduced to mindless consumerism, this epileptic shut-in and her infantilized mother are forced instead to take stock of their hapless existence, quite literally under the gun.
Ms. Weinsting blazes with fury, and pouts and cajoles with parental condescension, while Ms. Furlow seems to find herself slowly buried in an invisible blizzard throughout. Yet the younger actress remains deeply compelling. Just as the penultimate moment arrives, and the mother realizes how serious her daughter has been all along, we want to simultaneously scream and weep along with her. Director Bell and designer Tyler Duenow set the stage in the most nightmarish way imaginable: against a door that had seemed thrust from up-stage between glowing dark green walls. But now, that doorway has unexpectedly telescoped away from us, in an optical illusion, and seems more like the end of a long hallway. The surviving woman appears trapped there for all time: beating and clawing, begging for something she cannot, or will not, understand.
If all that sounds too grim, let me reassure you this play may also produce a strange sense of exhilaration an hour or so later: a joy within us that we are not yet as trapped as this.
Through March 15, 2008 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For information, call (314) 865-1995 or visit them online at www.straydogtheatre.org
Photo by John Lamb