'night, Mother by Marsha Norman. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Edie Falco.
Sometimes a single moment can put a blurry production into sharp focus. In the otherwise perfunctory revival of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, which just opened at the Royale, one such moment does occur, and not a minute too soon: The characters - and the Michael Mayer-direction production - are at their lowest points.
Thelma Cates (Brenda Blethyn) grabs the forearm of her daughter Jessie (Edie Falco) with a grip of strength and vitality that she - and we - never knew she had. Thelma's last and most desperate attempt to prevent her daughter from committing suicide, the touch - inspired by caring, anger, desperation, and a hundred other emotions she's never before shown Jessie - stuns them both, as well us: It's the first real sign of humanity and honesty to be displayed.
That these few seconds replace rather than amplify what's come before is a symptom of a much greater problem; a play that thrives on what exists - and what doesn't - in a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship, 'night, Mother cannot move in fits and starts. The show is never graceful or easy - the laughs (and there are a few) are isolated sugar crystals decorating a bitter feast - but it must be consistent.
Blethyn realizes this - so much is said in Thelma's wordless touch that you can see her denial evaporate around her, feel her drown in the personal failures and the heartbreak that have brought her and her daughter to that point. For Blethyn, that's a checkpoint: Her journey, from incredulity to fear and anger and eventually to resignation, won't be finished until the play is, when a painful but necessary phone call must draw attention to the end of one life and the beginning of another.
But for Falco, Jessie's mother grabbing - or, after a fashion, holding - her is the first and only time she connects to the character, finding a way inside a tortured woman with no will to live. Jessie has her reasons - at her most succinct, she says, "I'm just not having a very good time," and a failed marriage, troubled son, and epilepsy all play a part - but Falco never convincingly portrays Jessie's total commitment to her plan. Only when Thelma reaches out does she crack Jessie's fašade and we see in Falco's eyes not just a faint glimmer of hope, but a faint glimmer of something.
That it takes Blethyn, in that brief but crushing moment, to pull Falco into the play points up the production's most pressing problem: Falco is not and never can be Kathy Bates, who originated Jessie. I hate to shock Broadway producers with this astonishing revelation, but it must be done - prior to miscasting her in this, they also miscast her in 2002's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, in another role that Bates originated. What's next for Falco, a revival of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, or perhaps Goodbye Fidel? How about a stage adaptation of Stephen King's Misery?
Falco, once acclaimed for her work in Warren Leight's 1998 Side Man and now starring in HBO's The Sopranos, simply cannot do everything. No matter how unflatteringly she's costumed by Michael Krass and wigged up (or down) by Paul Huntley, her appearance only parodies dowdiness. Worse, in attempting to chart a despair so complete that suicide seems the only release, Falco provides but a flaccid imitation of hopelessness, never allowing us even a fleeting glimpse of the remnants of Jessie's tattered soul. With no vivifying hint of Jessie's inner turmoil, she might as well be killing herself because she has nothing better to do on a Saturday night.
That, more than anything else, dulls the edge of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play; Mayer's fussy direction that doesn't capitalize on the writing's intimacy and the bloated hominess of Neil Patel's set also don't help. (Brian MacDevitt's subtle lighting is the most effective contributor to atmosphere.) At least Norman's writing holds up well: Its central questions about ownership of one's life, responsibility to family, and the very nature of depression seem are as relevant today as when the play premiered on Broadway in 1983.
But without two actresses capable of unlocking the play's true, uncompromising power, the effect is hollow and artificial. Blethyn's painstakingly crafted series of minor, if ultimately meaningless, victories for Thelma are just right, but can't exist in a vacuum. The play intends to present the first and last perfect evening Thelma and Jessie can share, but Falco does not give enough to make an evening (or afternoon) visit to this 'night, Mother anywhere close to perfect.